Cool Class: Intro to African Dance and Culture

Not only is Kikora Franklin teaching her students to move their bodies, but also to understand the wealth of West African customs and traditions.

Kikora Franklin, courtesy

Most students in Dance 221: Introduction to African Dance and Culture are not prepared for the rigor of instructor Kikora Franklin’s high energy class. West African dance is no walk in the park—but by semester’s end, Franklin says, students not only learn to move their bodies in ways they never imagined they could, they also learn to appreciate a centuries-old cultural tradition that has been passed on through the generations.

Franklin, professor of dance in Penn State’s School of Theatre and recipient of the National Dance Education Organization’s outstanding leadership award in for diversity, equity and inclusion, began dancing at the age of three and studied many forms of dance intensively for over 20 years in Atlanta at Total Dance/Dancical Productions, Inc. a studio founded by her mother, dancer and artistic director Terrie Ajile Axam. “The in-depth, multifaceted dance-education I received at Total Dance is the foundation and inspiration for my pedagogical approach, one that uses dance to celebrate the individuality of each student as a necessary and vital part of the whole learning community,” Franklin says.

She was introduced to West African dance as a teenager. “My mother intentionally exposed students to diverse styles of dance and invited artists of the highest caliber to work with us,” Franklin says. “I was a part of her professional dance company at 16 and had the privilege to travel and throughout China and later Dakar, Senegal, where we studied at the Cultural Institute of Dakar under the direction of Master drummer Mor Thiam.”

Through those interactions Franklin learned the traditional dance genres from Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and other parts of West Sub-Saharan Africa that she teaches in Dance 221, which is a required class for theatre students. “It’s important for me to acknowledge that I’m teaching these traditional dance forms that have very particular origins, history, and meaning as interpreted through me, the teacher, and as they pass through my body,” she says.

Franklin begins her classes by guiding students through focused breathing, stretches, and an intensive warm up. Class progresses with locomotive movements across the floor, the introduction of specific rhythms and choreography, and when time permits, a community circle in which students are invited to dance freely. Each class ends with a cool down focused on breathing, release, and positive affirmations. Master drummer Jeff Martin plays the Djembe and other drums for each session—and Franklin also introduces the histories and origins of each dance so that her students can understand West Africa as a diverse region with a wealth of languages, customs, traditions, and art forms.

Beyond her classes, Franklin continues to choreograph and perform. She founded the Roots of Life program for K-12 school students in State College to learn West African dance, and she performs regularly with her mother, one of the first women to be certified as a dance teacher for K-12 schools in Georgia.