British Columbia

Child performers showcase Congolese dance to appreciative audiences in Prince George

The African Dancers' child performers are practising their Congolese rumba moves at home in Prince George now, waiting until they can get back on stage.

African Dancers still dancing at home during pandemic

Eleven-year-old Michelle Okanya is front and centre as the African Dancers perform at the Coldsnap Festival in Prince George in February 2020. (James Mullen/Contributed )

A northern B.C. children's troupe that performs dances from the Democratic Republic of Congo is gaining growing recognition in Prince George. 

Now sidelined by the pandemic, the African Dancers — aged six to 12 — continue to practise at home.

On a grey Sunday after church in his living room in Prince George, Selemani Rugema puts on music, a lively Congolese style known as rumba.

Four of the five African dancers are his children, and they push aside heavy red couches and a coffee table to make their dance floor.

The African Dancers practise at home in their living room in Prince George. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

The children practise in their stocking feet, trying to synchronize their movements.

Michelle Okanya, 11, shows the younger ones where to step and how to move their arms.

From the sidelines, Rugema gives pointers in Swahili, English or French. 

"I like them to be serious," said Rugema," I want them to show that they love it." 

A forestry worker who spends summers in the bush, Rugema is also DJ, head coach and choreographer for the African Dancers.  He's never taken a dance class himself.

"No, I didn't go to school to know how to dance like that," he said. "If you go in my country, all the kids dance. It's normal, it's the culture. You just follow the music. [Here], I put on my traditional music from Congo and then I dance and the children see me dancing, they come to me and we dance together."

The Rugema family at home in Prince George, after a dance practice in the living room. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Rugema came to Canada as a refugee from Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He first settled in Quebec, before making a home in Prince George 12 years ago, when he was one of the few local people from Africa. 

"Dancing can help. When you dance, you forget about a lot of stuff," he said. "Every time I feel like I'm down myself, we dance. That's the best way to remain positive. said Rugema.  

"Dancing makes me feel good," said Amissa Rugema, 8,  as the rehearsal winds down.  "It does something to me, and I don't really know how to explain it."

The young African Dancers were fan favourites at Prince George's music festival in 2020. (James Mullen/Contributed)

Rugema's children got their start dancing informally at the weddings of friends and family in Prince George.

About a year ago, the invitations started arriving to community celebrations, like the francophone Corn Roast where the children dance outside on the grass.

At Prince George's Coldsnap music festival earlier this year, the African Dancers performed  in front of a cheering crowd of 220 people, their biggest audience yet.

"These young dancers thoroughly entertained and educated the audience," said Sue Judge, artistic director of the Coldsnap music festival. "They reminded us all how joyous it is to celebrate culture though dance."

African-Canadian musician Alpha Yaya Diallo invited the young dancers up on stage during his feature performance at the Coldsnap Festival in Prince George in February 2020. (Philip Dovey/Contributed )

The children's performance was so good, headliner Alpha Yaya Diallo  invited them to join him on stage.

Eleven-year-old Okanya said that performance made her feel like "a celebrity."

"I stole the show," said Okanya. "Everybody who saw us is saying — "Oh, I remember you ... You're really good.'" 

"We could be dancing with Beyonce," said Okanya with a giggle.

Amissa and Amani Rugema take a break from dance practice. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

The African Dancers had been scheduled to dance for their first international audience at the opening ceremony of the World Women's Curling Championships in Prince George. They would have performed in front of athletes and sports officials from 13 countries, from China to the Czech Republic.

But it was cancelled because of the pandemic.

"We still keep dancing," said Rugema. 

The Black and African communities in northern B.C. are small, and Rugema says his troupe "lets people know we are here, we exist."

"If people can feel happy seeing us [perform], that will be good for us," he said. "That's all we need."

Children from the troupe practise in their living room on a Sunday afternoon. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous national and provincial journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary. Based out of Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

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