Getting dressed for traditional funeral in Ghana

Dance artist and summer 2012 Ghana participant Leah Moriarty getting dressed for a traditional funeral in the village of Kopeyia, Ghana.

The following guest post comes from Leah Moriarty, a dance artist and educator from New Haven, CT. She recently returned from the ThisWorldMusic/UMass summer study abroad in Ghana program.

I have spent the last ten years attempting to wrap my head and body around West African dance. It is the only aesthetic that has ever spoken to me and made my body feel at home.

I felt I could never consider myself an African dancer for two reasons: 1) I am not African and; 2) I had never been to Africa. I will never be African, but I can come as close as I can by dancing with Africans on African soil. I have always feared that I could never find acceptance from a culture that is not my own. My traveling to Ghana is part of an experiment. How Ghanaian can I be as a mixed-race white and Asian American dancer?

I was told that I’d be very fortunate to find myself at a funeral during my time here at the Dagbe Cultural Centre in Kopeyia. I was delighted, intimidated and very anxious when we received the invite to a real live local funeral. The group was mostly excited although none of us had any expectations. George is one of our dance and drum instructors and told me to expect one thousand guests! All of us fell asleep to the sounds of a distant party whose thumping drums persisted until at least 5 a.m.

African dance at a funeral in Ghana

Leah’s fellow trip members dancing at the traditional Ghanaian funeral.

Nothing could truly prepare me for the event. The lot of us twenty two Americans were dressed traditional “wrappers” by our fantastic instructors at Dagbe. They walked us down the street in the heat of this Saturday afternoon. I imagine that we were quite a spectacle. Upon arrival we were greeted by a throng of dancing, singing, drumming and mourning locals. “No one back home will believe us and no photo can capture this,” was Malaika’s (fellow American dance student) response. Our group certainly made a grand entrance and keeping a low profile was not an option. We were warned that not only would this possibly be the first encounter with Americans for some of the folks in attendance, but that also, in the words of trip leader Jeremy Cohen, “We look as different to them as they do to us.”

I stood on the outskirts of a large group of people dancing. I clapped timidly until I was pulled into the crowd by a very kind woman who was dressed to impress. Fortunately, my dance instructors had informed us to the best of their abilities during morning dance class that day and I was so pleased to be able to quickly pick up the movement for the traditional Ewe dance agbadza. I danced with this woman for quite a while with a wide smile painted on my face and a great deal of sweat collecting on my brow. During our exchange, I found it so easy to let go of the fact that I was an outsider. I was at a community event pounding my feet into the dirt in time with everyone else. Despite my obvious disposition, I was no longer out of place. I felt more Ghanaian than I have ever felt and, judging by the woman’s smile, I was welcome.