When Sylvia Soumah first learned the soko, a traditional dance from West Africa, she was told only that it was a female rite-of-passage dance. It wasn’t until later that she found out that the passage isn’t exactly the African equivalent of a debutante ball.

The soko is the dance young girls perform in celebration upon returning to the village after the ritual of female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation by American feminists. Soumah, director of Coyaba Dance Theater, prefers to call it “excision,” because most of the external vaginal tissue, including the clitoris and the inner and outer labia, is cut off. The vagina is then stitched up, with only a small hole to pass fluids.

“I like to do shows about real life. After traveling to Africa, I saw that women are treated decently, but their role is very hard,” says Soumah about her decision to choreograph Sunna: Female Rites of Passage, an evening-length piece. “You have to go through this [ritual] in order to be looked at as a woman of virtue in society,” she says. “And if you don’t do [it], you’re exiled.”

Soumah’s company members play the young initiates. They enter dressed in white but change into red cloths—symbolizing blood loss—and are blindfolded by the older women. During the show, one of the girls is picked to be symbolically circumcised. The young performers themselves don’t know before the performance which of them will be chosen.

Marcia Howard, Coyaba’s assistant director, has a 12-year-old daughter who dances in the company. When her daughter was picked in rehearsal, the ritual took on a more personal dimension.

“I saw the intensity of her lying on the floor. She was tightening up—and this was just rehearsal,” says Howard, who admits that it was hard for her to watch. “From what I’ve heard, mothers are excited because their daughter is becoming a woman. Being from America, though, I wouldn’t want to see my daughters go through that.”

The significance of the ritual isn’t lost on the young dancers, either. “We’re a little nervous when we get picked. We feel shocked—we feel shaky,” says Howard’s daughter, Simone Harris, who has performed African dance since age 7. “We think about it in the dance. It makes us more focused.”

Soumah knows that her show will rankle many viewers, especially those from the areas where circumcision is widely performed. “Most people think it’s just a West African tradition, but it’s done all over. Not only Muslims, but Christians, Ethiopian women, some Asian women,” Soumah says.

Soumah hopes her dance, based entirely on book research, will draw out women who have gone through the ritual. “It would make the piece so much more powerful if I had their words, their voices,” says Soumah. “I believe that tradition is fluid. It changes over time. When it causes pain or health problems or can be deadly, that’s something that we need to take a look at.”—Holly Bass

Coyaba Dance Theater performs Sunna Feb. 25-27 at Dance Place. Call (202) 269-1600 for details.