Experiencing Culture through Movement

 

Photo by Amanda Damelio

The arts are more than just a form of expression; they are used to learn about different cultures. That belief takes center stage during the lessons music Professor Paschal Younge teaches to his students. Both Younge and his wife, Zelma Badu-Younge, associate professor of dance, share a passion for the arts and use them as a language to bring cultures together.

The dynamic duo promotes engagement in the arts by exposing students to different cultures. Badu-Younge’s goal is to help her students perform to their highest potential and to create an environment that promotes open-minded thinking. That commitment stems from years of studying and performing. Individually, Younge and Badu-Younge have their own involvement with world cultures and understand the importance of dance and music.

“World art forms have the potential to help students develop frameworks that support intercultural understanding — that is, developing critical awareness of one’s own cultural influences and exploring this awareness through dialogue and exchange with other cultural influences in an effort to foster tolerance and appreciation,” Younge says.

Setting the Stage

Badu-Younge’s mother always told her daughter that she was dancing before she was walking. By age 5, Badu-Younge was taking dance classes in New York City. She danced from the early hours of the morning until night, and before long, she fell in love with the art form. She took several classes a day, mostly ballet and some modern dance. She attended intensive summer programs, including one at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

After living in Canada when she was younger, Badu-Younge wanted to return ton continue her dance education. In 1980, she was accepted into York University in Toronto and continued focusing on modern dance. While there, she was also accepted into a Russian Ballet Academy. As a full-time student at the university and the academy, Badu-Younge became “completely obsessed” with dance.

Badu-Younge later spent time teaching at Concordia University in Montreal, but soon realized she wanted to do more. Around the time of her father’s passing, Badu-Younge became interested in learning more about his culture and wanted to incorporate her heritage into her dancing. She decided that dance ethnology, the study of culture through dance, would be perfect. Because her father was from Ghana, Badu-Younge was determined to visit and learn more about Ghanaian dance.

“You learn about people’s cultures through their dance. That’s the way I see things. Because through the dance there are certain movements that they do, certain things that they highlight,” Badu-Younge says.

Luckily for Badu-Younge, that was around the same time Concordia University was offering a summer ethnology dance program in Ghana. The leaders of the six-week program recognized her abilities, and she earned her way into the dance ethnology program at York University.

Crossing Paths

Just like his father, Younge grew up in Ghana with a family of musicians. As a child, Younge was surrounded by almost every instrument possible, which allowed him to practice at home. Younge was accompanying a choir as a percussionist by age 8.

In pursuit of a career in music, Younge studied at the National Academy of Music and the University of Ghana. After he graduated, he became the principal music instructor and director of several ensembles, including instrumental and choral groups at the University of Ghana. Later, he came to the U.S. and worked at West Virginia University as director of the World Music Center and African Music Studies.

“Studying music at an early age was too much fun. It was a family tradition.” Younge says. “I found it to be rewarding and acquired so many social skills through the learning of individual instruments and playing in ensembles.”

While teaching at WVU, Younge took his students to Ghana for a three-week summer program. There, he ran into Badu-Younge, who was working on her research studies, for the second time. The couple had crossed paths once before in Ghana, when Badu-Younge was a dance student and Younge was the principal instructor for the performing arts at the University of Ghana.

“So, this dance affair was turning into a love affair,” Badu-Younge says. “So then he helped me again with my research, because he is from there, so he knows his ins and outs and he speaks the language fluently, so it makes it easier.”

The relationship escalated quickly and by summer of 2000, they were a married couple.

Bringing Culture to OU

Badu-Younge came to Ohio University in 2003 as an assistant professor of dance and founded OU’s African Ensemble. Younge was eager to join the OU faculty after he saw one of his wife’s performances with the ensemble. Now, the pair is co-directing the group, which uses music and dance to teach African culture and history.

“Different cultures have different approaches to teaching [and] different perspectives about the arts,” Younge explains. “We expose students to learn how different cultures approach life.”

When Younge first arrived at OU, he noticed the lack of opportunity for students to experience and learn about different cultures. In response, Younge and Badu-Younge collaborated in 2011 to create the World Music and Dance Festival in Athens. The festival is a one-week celebration each spring and that brings in artists from all over the world. All OU students can participate in workshops and learn from artists from countries such as Germany, Ghana, Canada, Brazil and France. Students also have the opportunity to showcase what they learned in performances during the festival.

“Our goal is for our students to learn beyond the classroom, so they can naturally gain knowledge and respect for the arts,” Younge says.

The couple also directs a festival called Nuit Blanche, which transforms the streets of Athens into an art gallery. Nuit Blanche is French for “white night.” The event is an annual all-night arts festival that engages people of all ages through creative experiences. Music, dance, theatre and visual arts are displayed throughout the streets. Local artists, members of the community, university faculty, students and guest artists from other countries have a chance to display their work during the event. The upcoming spring will be Nuit Blanche’s third appearance in Athens.

“We try to bring what we experience abroad and bring it to Athens,” Younge says. “Nuit Blanche is another opportunity to engage with the arts. … You can read about different cultures, but experiencing it is another thing.”

Younge explains that through their teachings, he and Badu-Younge want their students to develop an intellectual and creative practice. Their research, performances and lessons are used to convey the importance of considering the arts when studying a group of people. That motive also translates into two other ensembles directed by the couple. Azaguno is an ensemble-touring group that Younge and Badu-Younge founded in 2001. The Ewe people of Ghana define the term Azaguno as, “a master drummer.” The group’s focus is on the research, preservation, education and performance of traditional African American, Caribbean and Latin American music and dance. They travel both nationally and internationally to countries such as Taiwan, Italy and Hong Kong.

“The arts are very tied to culture. You can’t study culture without the arts. Not just the performing arts, but the visual. The arts are tied to the languages. Languages are tied to the traditions of the people. Once you study the arts, you are indirectly studying the people,” Younge says.

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