A group of Thiossane dancers perform traditional West African music on stage at their May 2019 concert, Happiness of the Children, at the Lincoln Theatre. Credit: Courtesy of Terry Gilliam

The Thiossane West African Dance Institute is bringing the sights, sounds and motion of West Africa to Ohio State this week. 

The Thursday, Friday and Sunday performances in Sullivant Hall will be Thiossane’s first at the university.

Thiossane (pronounced cha-sahn) is a traditional West African dance organization comprised of dancers of all ages that focuses on sharing the traditional values and culture of West Africa through dance and performance, Suzan Bradford Kounta, co-founder and artistic director of Thiossane, said. 

This is the first year the institute is performing at Ohio State in collaboration with the Department of Dance. Bradford Kounta said she has worked with Susan Hadley, dance department chair, to incorporate West African dance culture into the Ohio State curriculum.

“The departments are seeing that they have to begin to insert what the students are requesting and how to have their experience be a well-rounded experience in dance,” Bradford Kounta said. “So that includes West African dance and music.”

Bradford Kounta said the Thiossane Institute began in 2000, under the direction of her and her late husband Abdou Kounta.

“He [Abdou] was a member of the National Ballet of Senegal, and because we had already had a foundation in African dance, music and culture, our marriage was not just a marriage of just man and wife. It was a marriage of cultures and our possibilities and our purposes,” Bradford Kounta said.

Over the past 20 years, Thiossane Institute has expanded throughout Ohio and is beginning to branch out and tour throughout the United States, Bradford Kounta said.

Jesse Jackson III, a member of the company and a musician in the dance department, said he relates the importance of West African dance to the history of most modern dance culture.

“Before you can have ballet, jazz, modern hip-hop, etc., you have to understand where those things come from, and they come from African music, African dance in some shape or fashion,” Jackson said.

Ami Kounta, Bradford Kounta’s 20-year-old daughter, is both a student and an instructor for the institute’s apprentice program, made up of 14 dancers between the ages of 7 and 17. While balancing her own dance aspirations, she also choreographs and teaches technique to the dancers.

“Since I am a student, I can kind of see the real view that it is helpful to have the technique of African dance,” Kounta said. “You have your technique to fall back on, so at the end of the day, you can go into any style and pursue it.”

Thiossane admits members to the company in a different manner than most dance companies, Bradford Kounta said. She added that the institute practices the tradition of emphasizing the importance of family. Many of the members start at the institute at a young age and grow up with the other members, like family.

While younger members of organizations are traditionally seen as less experienced or novice, Jackson said Thiossane appreciates what the dancers have to offer at all ages and stages of skill.

“We are talking about family and community,” Jackson said. “It’s about knowing your place in society, but still knowing that you don’t have to be in charge or the oldest to know what you know.”

Bradford Kounta said the immersion of West African dance culture is a new and exciting experience for the Ohio State community. Not only will the three performances offer distinct cultural perspectives, but she said they will add to the awareness and inclusion of these different cultures in the curriculum.

“We are really excited because we know it hasn’t been done in the dance department, and we promised that the presentation will be educational; it will be fun and it will be interactive, and hopefully the appreciation for this artform grows,” Bradford Kounta said.

The first performance begins at 8 p.m. Thursday in Barnett Theatre in Sullivant Hall. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for Ohio State faculty, staff, students, alumni, senior citizens, non-Ohio State students, children and military veterans by contacting the theater’s ticket office or online through the Department of Dance website.