We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

Through her family of students, Kadiatou Conté nurtures

the dance traditions of her homeland.

On the stage of American University’s Experimental Theater on a recent Friday night, Fodé Camara, a young man dressed in a white sleeveless top and orange wide-leg pants made of a kentelike tapestry, emerges from the shadows into a lone spotlight. His bare arms piston as he pounds furiously on a djembe drum. For one full minute, he performs by himself. As the lights come up, seven women, dressed in matching tie-dyed bou bous and headwraps, encircle him, accompanied by two more drummers.

As the drummers step to the sides of the stage, the women begin moving their arms in broad, sweeping gestures. A short, dark-skinned woman who is dressed in a costume slightly different from the rest—it is multihued and sparkly—moves to the front of the stage and begins singing in a mellifluous, French-tinged soprano: “Anu nan kanday/Anu nan kanday so diallah/Anu nan kanday/Ah tu say ooh nan kanday so diallah.” After each line, she waits for the dancers to repeat after her in unison. The call-and-response arrangement is a West African tradition, and this particular song, “Anu Nan Kanday,” is a Sousou way of presenting oneself to an audience.

As the other performers continue to dance and sing, Kadiatou Conté, the small, sparkly woman in front, suddenly breaks out into a solo, moving feverishly as the drummers speed up the rhythm. Conté waves her hands quickly back and forth; the six women behind her begin jumping and turning and making arm gestures acknowledging the presence of the earth and sky.

Camara then returns to center stage, this time beating his drum even more forcefully, as each dancer takes her turn performing a solo of freestyle movement. The dancers are all showing off, smiling and soaking up attention. Conté waits until the other dancers are done before soloing again, moving as if she has caught the spirit in a Pentecostal church. With amazing speed and agility for a 48-year-old woman, she ends her dance with a flourish and looks at the audience with a face that says, You know I’m good. Go ‘head, clap. So we do.

Conté is used to this kind of attention. A dancer since the age of 3, she has always been something of a marvel. Her mother, Mabinthe Conté, says that she was pregnant with Conté for an extraordinary 13 months. Although his Muslim faith discourages dancing in public, Conté’s father, Boubakar Conté, allowed his daughter to perform in the house for family and friends as a toddler—proof that she was indeed healthy and strong, despite her long stay in the womb.

Boubakar, like many patriarchs in Conté’s native Conakry, Guinea, didn’t send his female children off to be formally educated. Young women in ’50s Conakry were expected to learn domestic responsibilities from their mothers. But Conté’s parents divorced when she was 7, leaving her in the care of her paternal grandmother, who allowed her to play outside all day. Little did her grandmother and father know that Conté was going to the local community center to dance.

“I was a street dancer,” says Conté. “I didn’t go to school for it—I received a gift from God. I didn’t grow up with [a] goal.”

During Conté’s childhood, Guinea was a communist country, ruled by President Sékou Touré. When she was 14, Conté was chosen by community-center dance instructor Amadou Camara to perform in China, one of her homeland’s political allies. Because she needed her father’s permission to go on the trip, Boubakar discovered that Conté had been defying his order not to dance outside the home. “I was hiding it forever,” says Conté of her desire to dance. “My father never asks me about dancing. To this day, we never talk about it. By the time I was 12, no one can take this away from me. It was too late for him to stop me.”

At 17, Conté joined the Ballet Fédéral de Conakry II—one of the country’s two professional companies—for a tour of Europe. A plaque hanging in her living room, signed by the Guinean ambassador to the United States, notes that during her time with the company, Conté earned the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in African modern and traditional dance and theater. In 1970, Conté left the Ballet Fédéral and joined the more prestigious Ballet National Joliba de la République du Guinée.

When the Ballet National toured the United States in 1972, Conté remembers, she became fascinated with Washington, D.C. “I promised myself that I would return here,” she says. “When I was traveling, we went all over Europe and Asia. There were always a lot of white people. I could count on my hand the number of black people that I saw. When we arrived in the airport in Washington, I asked myself, ‘Are we in Africa?’ There were all these black people.”

Conté retired from the Ballet National after she became pregnant, in 1980. After a miscarriage, she became ill and depressed. “My hope was gone away,” she says. “I had no job; my dance career was over. My doctor said I wouldn’t be able to have any more babies. I was shocked. All I did every day was go to the mosque to pray.”

When a military coup ushered in a change of government after Touré’s death in 1984, Conté decided that it was time to move. “I wanted a better life for myself,” she says. “I have 11 brothers and sisters. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I wanted to create a better life for my family.

“I found a plane ticket for $100,” she continues. “I felt blessed. I felt like God was with me to send me here. I was just determined to come to America. I don’t know why I wanted to come to Washington. I just wanted to come here. I liked it. Maybe God said, ‘That’s the home for you.’”

After arriving in the United States, Conté supported herself by working as a nanny and cleaning houses. She also learned to drive and to speak English. But it would take her nearly six years to start dancing again. In 1990, after hearing about Assane Konte’s Washington-based troupe, Kankouran West African Dance Company, Conté set about to find him. “She called me. At the time she was not dancing. She came…to check the center out [because] she heard about my name,” says Konte.

“When I find [Konte],” Conté recalls, “they play the drums for me. I say, ‘I know how to dance’ and he said, ‘Go, girl.’” Conté began dancing with the company shortly after.

“She’s a great dancer,” says Konte. “The old [is] always the classic.”

Kankouran’s home in the early ’90s was the now-defunct Stables Arts Center on 8th Street NW. One day, Conté decided to visit the other businesses in the building to try to sell some fabric and clothes she had brought with her to rehearsal. She happened on the studio of exercise maven Wanda Bamberg-Tia. “Kadiatou came into my studio and showed me some things she was selling,” says Wanda Woman, as she is known in D.C. fitness circles. “Though I liked what she had, I didn’t have any money. She said, ‘It’s OK—you can pay me later.’ I was amazed that she trusted me so instantly.”

“When I met Wanda, I felt like I met my sister,” Conté says. “She helped me with everything….She gave me my first tennis shoes, T-shirts, short pants. We started dancing together, and she pushed and encouraged me.” Bamberg-Tia gave Conté an opportunity to teach at her studio in 1991. “That’s where everybody got to know me,” Conté says.

When the Stables Center closed, in 1997, Bamberg-Tia and Conté both began teaching at the Fitness Company at the Greencourt gym on Vermont Avenue NW. Although Conté had been teaching dance at area universities—American, Gallaudet, Georgetown, and Howard—she was better known for her exercise classes. And she missed the intimacy of working with a dance company. “It was always my dream to have my own company,” she says.

That same year, she founded the five-member Balafon West African Dance Ensemble, naming her company for a traditional Guinean instrument similar to a xylophone. Conté originally wanted Balafon to be a women-only troupe, but she recently opened membership to men and children. Today, Balafon, still based at the Fitness Company, has three components: a performing company, a children’s company, and a “community” company consisting of new dancers.

Conté doesn’t audition potential members of her company. “If you wanna have a company,” she says, “you have to teach the people.” She also keeps Balafon rehearsals open to anyone who is interested and trains her students for free. “I feel like I have a gift from God, and I want to share it,” she says.

Most members of Balafon are former ballet and modern dancers who have just been introduced to African dance. Twenty-five-year-old Lauren Atkins, a graduate engineering student at Howard University who studied ballet at her high school in Birmingham, Ala., came to an open rehearsal two years ago, then started attending weekly classes at the gym before officially becoming a company member.

“With ballet,” Atkins says, “everything stops on the outside. When you’re doing African dance, you still have to have the correct movement, but your personal style is important, too.” Atkins joined the company because, in rehearsals, Conté teaches the meaning behind the dances and songs. “I felt compelled to be around Kadiatou,” Atkins says. “It was as if a part of me previously dormant had been opened up.”

“Kadiatou isn’t the best teacher,” says Sheila Clyburn, a member of both Balafon and Kankouran. “To me, Assane is the best teacher. Kadiatou is a performer….Kadiatou said to me, ‘African dance is like war: If you the best you gonna get up fight like you the best.’”

“She’s an incredible motivator,” Clyburn continues. “Iyanla, Oprah—none of them can tell a better story….Kadiatou will make a three-legged dog think that he can outrun the finest greyhound on the race track.”

In rehearsal, Balafon dancers address Conté as “Mama,” in part because of the West African tradition of respecting one’s elders but also because Conté is, as Atkins says, “like your mother, like your sister, and sometimes like your enemy. We’re a family.”

“I call her ‘Mama’ because she is…like a mother to me,” says Vonntanice Turner, 27, an American University student and Balafon member originally from Texas. Turner moved to Washington to pursue graduate studies in dance; before meeting Conté, she had taken classes with Djimo and Akua Kouyate’s company, Memory of African Culture, at the Watoto School in Petworth. “Kadiatou knew I had gone to a few workshops before, and she used it against me,” Turner says. “[But] she encouraged me to get rid of some of my shyness and come off a little stronger when I dance and in life in general.”

Last July, Balafon made its Kennedy Center debut, performing on the Millennium Stage during the National Dance Education Association’s annual conference. “I’ve never been happy like that day,” says Conté. “[The performers] were so excellent. People were asking me what country the dancers were from, they looked so good. They made my dream come true. My next dream is to take my dancers to Africa. I want them to see where I come from.

“My father said to me, ‘One day you will have children. They may not come from your own tummy, but you will have them one day.’ I feel like I have children now. The members of Balafon are my children….Someday they’re going to be dancers, teachers—they’re going to be like me.” CP