Drums beat and dancers energetically jump in the warm Gainesville air at Depot Park.
The lush, green trees and grass of Gainesville remind Barakissa Couliaby, a 42-year-old professional West African dancer and instructor of the West African outdoor class, of her home tropical country of Côte d’Ivoire, which is also known as Ivory Coast.
Couliaby taught her first outdoor West African dance class at Depot Park on Dec. 6 and held a second class Jan. 17. The next class will not take place until Feb. 21, and Couliaby is still working on figuring out a regular schedule.
Couliaby, who has taught the class throughout Gainesville and UF, said she started offering the classes outdoors as a way to safely conduct them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I wanted to bring the community together and share a moment of unity and positive energy,” Couliaby said.
About 10 to 15 people attended each of the prior classes, and dancers wore masks and socially distanced, Couliaby said. Members of Couliaby’s local dance company Mosso-Kan West African Dance and a Gainesville drum ensemble assisted her.
Since Couliaby began her career in traditional African dance in 1990, she has traveled all over the world dancing and teaching the style, she said. She first arrived at UF in 2012 as part of the Agbedidi: A Fusion of Traditional African and Contemporary Dance show performance and permanently relocated to Gainesville in 2017.
Now an adjunct lecturer at UF's School of Theatre and Dance, she is the only West African dance teacher in Gainesville, she said.
Leah Cohen, a 47-year-old Gainesville resident, said she instantly felt a connection to West African dance and fell in love with it after her first class.
“It probably goes way deeper, sort of soul deep,” Cohen said. “It feels free to me, whereas some of the other dance styles feel more constrained.”
Cohen said she’s known Couliaby for a few years and learned about the outdoor dance class through Facebook. Cohen has danced all her life, she said, and wanted to try different types of dance as an adult.
“I love that particular style and how grounded and energizing it is,” Cohen said. “Barakissa in particular has created a sense of community around the dance that I find very nourishing.”
Alexis Jennings, a 27-year-old research administrator at UF College of Medicine, said after a long day of work, attending Couliaby’s dance class was an enlightening experience. She said she fell in love with the spiritually, wellness and grounding within the dance movement.
“Not only are you learning the movement and the technique, there's a very rich history behind it, that symbolically represents so many things,” Jennings said.
Jennings, who has been doing West African dance since 2011, served as the director of the African Student Union dance troupe from 2012-2015. She said Couliaby has been the most influential teacher she has had.
During the most recent dance class, Jennings filled in for a drummer who couldn't attend. She said she enjoys the unity and empowering representation of diversity Couliaby brings to the community.
“We're all together just enjoying one another,” Jennings said. “It's honestly a treasure.”
Beginning Jan. 30, Couliaby will be teaching a new West African dance class series for children and adults at the Capoeira Massape, a martial arts school in Gainesville, located at 2020 NW Sixth. St. Capoeira is a type of Afro-Brazilian dance-fighting common among African and Brazilian cultures.
Contact Michelle Holder at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @michellecholder.
Michelle Holder is a second-year journalism student at UF minoring in entrepreneurship and a Metro reporter at The Alligator. She is from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. In her free time she enjoys going to coffee shops and reading.