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The Rhythm of Life

Gifted West African performer joins Swarthmore’s dance program

Isaac Akrong contends that we can all walk to the eternal rhythms of life. His electrifying stage presence and infectious smile illustrate this conviction. Offering classes in Dance I and Dance II this academic year, Akrong, associate in performance dance, hopes to spread his love of traditional African culture with the College community and beyond.

Hailing from Ghana’s coastal belt, Akrong pursued his love of African performance as an undergraduate at the University of Ghana’s School of Performing Arts. He sharpened his vibrant techniques for drumming and dancing by joining the Ghana Dance Ensemble, a component of the university’s Institute of African Studies.

He found his way to North America in the early 2000s, earning an M.A. in dance and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from York University, in Toronto, Ontario. From 2002 until June Akrong taught a variety of courses at York, including West African drum ensemble, African dance, and African studies. He also has been a visiting artist in dance at Wesleyan University and a featured performer with Music Africa at the Royal Ontario Museum.

This year at Swarthmore, Akrong hopes his classes will bridge real-life experience at the intersection of music, dance, and culture. “[Finding] the meanings behind what we see is important because dance is life, rhythm is life, and how they intersect [reveals] the call of nature,” he explains. He says that students currently enrolled in his classes are a “wonderful and diverse” group dedicated to “learning as much as they can.”

Dancers of all levels should feel comfortable with Akrong’s unified style of learning, he says. “Those who do not have the basics are able to come to [the intermediate] level.” The thought process is simple, he adds: “Hey, we can all walk. Let’s try the same steps. As we are walking, I can go with the rhythm.”

Dance II student Sedinam Worlanyo ’17 appreciates how Akrong’s classes challenge her in more ways than one. “Most of my classes challenge me intellectually but [Dance II] is one of the few classes that has challenged me both intellectually and physically,” she says. Worlanyo thoroughly enjoys the way Akrong communicates his dances so that the whole class learns to “pick them up” organically (and surprisingly fast). She describes Akrong’s personality as “energetic, warm, and funny.”

Akrong’s desire to share African culture transcends classroom walls. In 2001, he founded African Dance Ensemble (ADE), a multinational touring company for African dance. ADE performs live African music with African traditions from Ghana, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Congo, and Ethiopia. Based in Canada, the ensemble performs their shows mostly in Ontario and Toronto. According to ADE’s website, performances are designed to “connect with energetic African dances from ‘Mother Africa.’ ”

Some of Akrong’s work with Swarthmore students will be featured in the Spring Student Dance Concerts May 1 and 2. “We encourage people to join us for those events,” says Sharon Friedler, director of the dance program. “In the very short time that Isaac has been at Swarthmore, students and faculty have been positively impacted by his mastery of African dance and drumming as well as by his generosity and collaborative attitude in teaching and performance,” she adds.

Akrong finds the College environment stimulating in many ways, from “all the labels on the beautiful trees” to the variety of cultures converging in one learning environment. He compares the depth of learning at Swarthmore to the levels of rhythm circulating throughout life: from womb to tomb. For him, everything is connected. “I find the world at [this] one place learning African culture,” he declares. “And I am pleased to share what the world has to offer.”