What is Mandé, and why do people love it so much?

I first heard of Mandé when I went on a tour of Brown. Our tour guide told us it was one of the most popular classes and a must take for all students. I remember watching students practicing their steps through the halls of Keeney my freshman year, and I remember watching the final performance on what was then Lincoln Field (now Simmons Quad) on a beautiful day in May.

I always knew I had to take Mandé, but it wasn’t until I actually registered for the class this semester that I understood why it’s so beloved. So for all of those curious about this dance class that is more than a dance class, I’m here to tell you what Mandé is all about (warning: this class is ever-growing and changing — this post is only about what Mandé is like this year, some small structural things could change in future years).

Mandé is a Theater Arts and Performance Studies (TAPS) class with over 100 students that aims to teach both the dance styles and culture of the Mandé ethnic groups of Western Africa—Mali specifically. It’s more of a community than a class, and there is an innate bond that you form with those you meet who have taken Mandé. As Justin Harris ’15 told me of his experience when he took the class as a freshman:

It’s a class about expression and cultural enrichment. It gives a full view on liberal learning, as you learn with your mind and your body. It’s a class that tries to influence you beyond the bounds of education. It’s more than just a dance class; you get so much more out of it. More satisfaction.

The basics: Everyone who takes Mandé is put into a “family” of around 10 students. My family is an amazing, diverse group of students from all walks of campus. Within your family, you create individualized chants, costumes, dance moves, flags, and more. I have such pride in my family that I couldn’t imagine being in another one. Each family is also paired with another family, called a “bantering family.” You can sort of think of bantering families like siblings — they may call out to you and make fun of you (we learned on the first day to call them “bean eaters!”), but they always have your back when you need it and will always cheer you on.

Class structure: Mandé meets for two hours twice a week, plus a one-hour mandatory section, in Ashamu Dance Studio (connected to Lyman Hall). The first hour of class is spent without the drummers so you can work in your family on your project, watch groups give presentations, or learn about Malian culture. For one class period we were asked to move in slow-motion across Simmons Quad always touching the members of our family without talking. It was meant to be ceremonial. To be honest, I don’t think I learned anything from that. In another class, we watched a video our professor shot in the ’90s during a Malian wedding ceremony. I learned a lot more from that.

The second hour is when the drummers, Moussa and Seydou, arrive, and we dance. We begin learning the steps facing the mirrors, with half of the class on the floor and the other half watching from the sides, since the class is too large for everyone to be dancing at once.  We then dance across the floor towards the drummers with our bantering families. We end the class in a huge dance party clump and thank the drummers for playing with us — it’s very sweaty and joyous.

Professor: Michelle Bach-Coulibaly. Perhaps one of the zaniest women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. She dances more passionately than anyone, and it is awe-inspiring to watch.

Teaching Assistants: The TAs are the heart and soul of the Mandé class, in my opinion. Their passion and their amazing ability make each of us want to work harder. They bring an intensity and heat to their movements that we can only hope to emulate. There is a reason they get the loudest cheers of all when they step out onto the floor. They are also some of the most accessible TAs I’ve ever had in a class at Brown. They want you to succeed and will do anything so that you can do that — they will stay after class to review steps and even come to your family’s rehearsals outside of class. They also clearly put in so much more work into making the class function that we as students aren’t even aware of. They love Mandé, and that makes us love Mandé.


The incredibly sexy Mandé TAs.

The Dances: We learn 3 dances over the course of the semester, which consist of several steps within them. We learn about 2-3 steps each class. After we have learned an entire routine, we are tested. Each family must perform the entire routine and it must be choreographed with several different formation changes (the number of formations is given to us, but we decide as a family what formations we want to use). This choreography and rehearsal must be done on our own time, which is perhaps the most challenging part of the course.

As I said, I love my family to death, but tensions do run high when you’re trying to choreograph a dance the night before your test while everyone has about 1,000 other things they need to be doing. But test day is actually kind of fun, because you get to see what formations other families have come up with and how they’re dressed.

You’re also required to take 2 short reading quizzes — they were really more like Jeopardy; the winning family got to pick when they performed during the test — but they were not a big deal, and the readings could be divvied up between family members. At the end of the semester (now!), each student signs up for the dances they want to perform at the Final Show (May 11th!), and we have many hours of rehearsal (both during regularly scheduled class time and outside of it) to prepare.

Social Justice: Along with learning how to dance, a major focus of the class is using the arts to promote social justice. Every year the class has structured the service project aspect differently, but this year, each set of bantering families was given a service project that they have to research, fundraise for, and present to the class. Some of the service projects include bringing a deep water well to a village, funding a women’s community garden, and furthering the Malian hip-hop movement. Groups have used Indiegogo campaigns, tank top sales, bake sales, and parties featuring Moussa and Seydou on the drums to raise money. This is the part of Mandé that makes it more than a dance class.

Rhythm of Change Festival: The last component of the class is the Rhythm of Change Festival (ROC). This is a weekend-long, annual festival that brings in international artists and activists to lead and participate in workshops and performances to celebrate Mandé culture and social engagement. Because this weekend is mandatory for all Mandé students, there is a $100 lab fee for the course to help bring in these amazing artists from all over the world. If folks are low on funds, that can be addressed by talking to the TAs.

ROC was an amazing thing to experience as a dancer, as I was taught by, and danced beside, some of the best in the business. It was also really special to see former Brown students, ones that actually met while taking Mandé, come back together and dance in a way that they love. Some have continued dancing together, and some have moved on to other things, but they all came back for this weekend. Some even brought their kids, and they danced too. It was kind of magical, and painful—my body has never been so worn out in my life.

It was also a huge time commitment, so that is something to keep in mind, as you are in workshops during the day and watching performances at night for almost the entire weekend. Nevertheless, it was amazing to see how the arts brought people together and crossed so many cultural bounds.

What I expected from Mandé: To learn some cool new dance moves that I could show off at parties.

What I got from Mandé: A renewed love of dance and my body, plus an appreciation for the impact that the arts can have on society. Knowledge about Malian culture including song, foods, and history, and many of the challenges facing Mali today (Malnutrition, gender disparities, Al-Qaeda). Less disgust by the sight of feet and the smell of body odor. Lastly, new friends and some kick-ass dance moves.

And, of course, the most important lesson I have learned from Mandé is: Free your pelvis, free your mind. Come to the final show, Sunday May 11 at 5:00 p.m. on Simmons Quad to see how much we’ve learned this semester! And take Mandé in the future; it is completely worth it. No experience required.

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