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Future Folk: Maila Sylla’s West African Dance Class

Written by on September 1, 2022

“It’s not only dancing, but it’s teaching a story through the dance movements.”

– Maila Sylla

Maila Sylla teaches her students to connect with themselves and others through West African dance.

Whether you want to learn about West African culture, get a good workout in or blow off some steam, Maila Sylla’s West African dance class is here to help. The class, hosted at the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, focuses on a wide variety of traditional African and Caribbean dances, like Lamba, Djansa and Dundunba. It’s free for all ages and skill levels — one of her youngest students is 3 years old — so anyone can learn to express themselves through dance.

Maila Sylla teaches people of all ages, starting her classes with the youngest students and beginners.
Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

Maila Sylla was first introduced to West African dance by her parents, who were pioneers of African drumming and dance in Chicago. Always drawn to West African dance, Sylla found her own connection to the art form from a young age and began researching, eventually making her way to study with dance groups in West Africa. After years of studying and touring dance conferences in the U.S., she began her class.

“I felt like I wanted to teach other people these things so that it could continue on,” Sylla explained, “and they can learn how to do it and teach it to others so that we never lose these traditional dance steps and dance rhythms.”

Sylla stresses the power and physicality West African dance music possesses. For her, the music and dances automatically elicit positive energy. The dances Sylla teaches all have distinct styles and moves, which represent different ways of life in their countries of origin. Some are energetic and athletic, while others are simple and prayerful. All of the dance styles enable her students to relieve stress, connect with their bodies and learn about human connection without using words.

All of Sylla’s classes feature live instrumentals as the backdrop for the dances.
Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

“West African dance is about… teaching you different things about life through the dance,” she said. “It’s teaching you how to celebrate… it’s teaching you how to be strong. It’s teaching you how to feel good, how to grow up.”

For the fourth installment of our Future Folk interview series, in partnership with the Old Town School of Folk Music and Music Moves Chicago, community storytelling producer Ari Mejia spoke with Maila Sylla about her connection to West African Dance and what she hopes her students gain from her class.

Ari Mejia: Maila Sylla is an African dance teacher here in Chicago, providing free dance classes at the Dorchester Arts + Housing Collaborative. Thanks to the Old Town School of Folk Music and Music Moves Chicago, Maila has been creating a dance environment to nurture the expression and freedom inspired by traditional African dance and music. Here’s Maila to bring you inside her Tuesday night classes.

Maila Sylla: Chicago has a strong community of African culture and dance, and Caribbean culture and music. 

Hi, my name is Maila Sylla, I’m from Old Town School of Folk Music. I teach African dance, West African dance, mostly. And I also do Caribbean folk dance — dance styles from like Jamaica, and Barbados, St. Thomas. I do a lot of Caribbean, Carnival-style dance movements. I really like to describe the dancing that I do as my oxygen. It’s my breath, you know? It’s relaxation. I let go. Everything is gone away when I come into the African dance floor.

Sometimes people come to class and they get a little intimidated because it’s so energetic. But it’s really just you and your body, and letting your body go and just doing as much as you can do. This is your time to be free. Any type of issues you’re having outside of here go away when you come into this space. 

Dancers of any and every skill level are encouraged to attend Maila Sylla’s class, taught for free at the at the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative.
Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

My parents were pioneers of dance here in Chicago, my mom and dad were both performing artists here in the city doing African drum and dance. So I first got introduced to it by them. I just so happened to really like it myself and got in tune with it. And I started doing research for myself, I started studying in West Africa with different dance groups there. And I started traveling around to different dance conferences here in the U.S. that we have. It’s a very special treat, because it’s not something that’s always happening. You have to be knowing and looking out for it. 

After I studied for so long, I felt like I wanted to teach other people these things so that it could continue on, and they can learn how to do it and teach it to others so that we never lose these traditional dance steps and dance rhythms.

Photos by Sulyiman Stokes.

The class here is a family class, here at Dorchester Housing. It’s for the community. This is an all-level class and everyone can feel free to come. This is also a free class and I think people really appreciate it, and you can tell by the presence of everyone that comes to class. We have young children, as young as, like, 3 years old. 

We come in, we greet each other. We, “Hey! How you doing everybody, mamas and papas? Y’all feeling good today?” You know, we always greet each other because it’s like a family thing here… it’s always family. We always come here and come together to enjoy ourselves. So that’s first.

After we warm up our muscles and our body, and stretch, and we feel like we’re getting there, we usually break down steps. I take steps really slowly.

Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

So once we start going across the floor in lines, we’ll join with the music, the music will join us. And we’re really pumping then.

The music is like earthquake-shaking… it’s like an earthquake. You feel the ground moving first. You can feel the beat up from your feet and it goes all the way up to your temple. And you just start tingling, and you start moving your feet and tapping. 

“It’s not only dancing, but it’s teaching a story through the dance movements.”

Maya Sylla

Not only are we learning dance steps, but we’re learning how to connect to the music and connect with the music without saying it out of our mouths. It’s something that the dancers have to listen for, and it’s something that the musicians are giving us. Instead of, like, saying, “Five, six, seven, eight.” No, I don’t have to say that. The music is gonna say it, and the dancers are going to learn and then know that, “Hey, the music just said, ‘Five, six, seven, eight.’” And that tells them to start, stop or change their dance step. 

The youth usually go first and then we have, like, a beginners line where I take the beginners step-by-step a little slower. And then we also have advanced people here, and they’ll get more intricate combination steps. That’s when everybody really starts breathing hard, getting the sweat coming in and really getting a good workout.

Photos by Sulyiman Stokes.

Every dance has really a different type of style that you would do with your body. One of the dances that we open the space up with is like a graceful dance, and it’s called Lamba. I like to describe it as almost looking like a praise dance. We’re giving thanks to different things, anything that you want to honor, anyone that you want to honor, this is a dance for that. You’ll see a lot of long arm movements, stretching your arms up to the skies and even coming down to the earth, and bringing your arms back down and behind you. And it’s a very flowy dance, it’s a very precise dance. It’s very angelic, though, very slow. 

We have another part of the dance we do called Djansa, that the younger generation usually love to do because it has more of an up-beat. And those same movements get really fast, and we do a lot more footworkin’, fast foot movement. Almost looks like Chicago footworkin’ style dancing. 

We have a dance called Dundunba, which is about strength. The dance steps are really strong, you know, such as stomping your feet up and down… bending your knees, doing turns. You can even do a flip in this type of dance, because it’s very athletic. 

Every dance is a little different, but it’s all traditional and it’s showing different ways of life through the dance moves. The things that West African dance is about is teaching you different things about life through the dance… it’s teaching you how to celebrate… it’s teaching you how to be strong. It’s teaching you how to feel good, how to grow up. Different things… how to give honor to someone. We still need these things in our every day-to-day life. It’s not only dancing, but it’s teaching a story through the dance movements. 

Maila Sylla has been in the world of West African music and dance since her childhood, growing up with parents ingrained in African dance and drumming in the city. Photos by Sulyiman Stokes.

Every dance has a different meaning, it’s from a different area of Africa, from a certain country, all the way down to a certain ethnic group. And each ethnic group has their own traditions and things, and those are different things that we’re representing inside of the dance step. That’s what you’ll see inside of the dance movements, it’s a lot of information, it’s a lot of discipline. Because, not only are we learning dance steps, but we’re learning how to connect to the music.

People are coming here to receive, I hope, one of two things… First, joy. The music alone, I believe, will put you in a certain joyful mood. It just makes you feel good, the beat and the rhythm. You won’t help but to be excited, even if you came in feeling down or anything. A lot of people are coming from work, it’s been a long, stressful day. School, different things like that. So they come here, and I believe that they’re trying to let go of all of that type of energy and get some good vibes. And then second, on top of the good vibes, you get a good workout, you know? And it’s very important in this day and time, with all of the different things going on, for us to keep our blood flowing, for us to keep our body healthy and work out. 

They want to know, where else are we doing this… do we have any other classes? That really makes me happy to know that they’re feeling good, and it’s something good for them. We’re also, like I said, going through a lot of stress, and I believe a lot of people come here to relieve that stress and that tension. Once you start learning and you start getting it and you really see that, “Oh, I’m learning so much”… And then you start thinking, like, “Wow, I gotta share this with someone.”

“It just feels really good to them and they want to come the following week,” Sylla says of her students.
Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

I have a lot of my students that will come up to me after class and let me know how they’re really feeling. You know, like, this is bringing something out of them that they never felt before, and it just feels really good to them and they want to come the following week. 

I think folk, to me, is like foundation. So, before there was Afrobeats… before there was soca… before there was hip-hop, there was West African dance. And so, this is folk, this is like going back to the one, going back to the source, and different things like that. And from this folk, all of these other different dynamics happened from there. And we always got to pay homage and give thanks to where everything started. And for me, that’s the folk.

Usually when I go in my class and say, “Hey, has anyone ever heard about Africa or West Africa? Can you name any countries for me? Can you… tell me some information about it?” I wasn’t getting any hands, or I’d get a few hands… Now I’m getting a few more hands… and that’s why I’m here. I’m so proud to be able to continue the tradition.

Learn more about Maila Sylla on Facebook

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction written by George Chiligris and Morgan Ciocca

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

All photos by Sulyiman Stokes

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