Thousands of miles from his homeland, Charles Ahovissi is living a dream to share his culture with the world. The native of Benin, West African resides in Omaha, Neb., where he fell in love while on tour and married and started a family here, and this acomplished dancer, choreographer, and drummer now exposes aspects of African cultures to student and adult audiences throughout this Midwest state under the auspices of his African Culture Connection. His small but mighty nonprofit is still basking in the glow of a major national award it was recognized with last year. It’s not the first significant recognition he and his performing and teaching troupe has received and it’s not likely to be the last either. My story about Charles and the ACC is still looking for a publication home but for now you can read it right here on my blog.
African Culture Connection Founder, Charles Ahovissi joins Victoria Beaugard, participant in African Culture Connection’s program at Girls Inc
, in receiving the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House
on November 19th, 2012
Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch during African Culture Connection performances like the one Sept, 5 at the Westside Community Conference Center.
Led by Benin, West Africa native Charles Ahovissi, a professional dancer and choreographer, the Omaha-based ACC is dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.
ACC performances are always dynamic but last month’s by-invitation-only event carried even more vitality because it celebrated a milestone in the young organization’s life. In late 2012 ACC became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. and the first ever in Nebraska to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC, which formed only in 2006.
Ahovissi, ACC’s high-energy founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Nov. 19. Accompanying him at the ceremony was Victoria Baeugard of Omaha Girls Inc., an organization that ACC ofter serves. Baeugard is part of a troupe of Girls Inc. members who’ve learned to perform African dances under Ahovissi’s tutelage. In addition to the award, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of ACC winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.
All of it is more than enough reason to celebrate and so many of ACC’s board members, donors and supporters gathered for food, drink, conversation and congratulations last month. Even the beaming, ever-optimistic Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his little organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.
“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”
Nebraska Arts Council director of programs Marty Skomal says “the award is given to an arts or humanities program for youth that takes place outside of the school day which also promotes youth development. No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see his troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and they respond to it instantly. It is ACC’s unique way of inspiring youth by example that motivates kids to take pride in their own cultural heritage, whatever its origin. In brief, ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”
Ahvossi knows ACC is well thought of by the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the African immersion experience he provides. Ahovissi says the glowing evaluations and notes “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect, they learn how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”
Then there’s the fact ACC offers programming that no one else does in this area.
“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”
Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Robera Wilhelm says Ahovissi “has helped girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook,” adding, “The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, they create printed fabric to wear while they dance and they hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”
Ahovissi conducts residencies around the state through NAC. He brings not just the music and dance of Africa, but the stories behind them.
“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I travel a lot through the Nebraska Arts Council. I’m grateful for that. I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”
He’s also trains a group of teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues to immerse participants in various elements of African culture.
“Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music and all that, so at the same time I’m teaching kids a dance I’m also teaching them the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, farming is a big deal in Africa. Before farming there is preparation, during and after farming there’s a celebration. That is like story. The way we farm in Africa is not the same as it’s done in America. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit, that is dance movement that has a story.
“There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming.
“Another example is the initiation of youths. When you reach a certain age you need to go see the elders. They will teach you life skills, what is right to do, what is wrong to do. During an initiation in a village we play certain music and do special dances. So when I’m teaching kids the initiation dance I’m also teaching them this story, this culture, the way we do things.”
The dances performed at the Sept. 5 celebration included the Sinte dance. He exp;lains, “Sinte comes from the Boke and Boffa area in the northwest of Guinea. The Landonma, Nalo, and Baga ethnic groups, who have been living together in this region for many years, play it before the initiation of the youth.” Another number ACC performed at the event was the Djole dance. “Djole is a dance organized to showcase different masks,” says Ahovissi. “Djole comes from the region in the southwest of Guinea and the northwest of Sierra Leone. The Temine, Mandenyi and Soussou ethnic groups share this rhythm.” Finally, he says the Kete dance executed by the Girls Inc. members is from the Allada Region of southern Benin, adding, “The music and dance can be heard on many occasions and festivals, particularly at funeral ceremonies.”
Ahovissi says students who participate in his programs, including members of Girls Inc., learn rituals and lessons with deep, universal meaning.
“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. That simple statement means a lot,. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”
He strongly feels that American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.
“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”
He says as Omaha’s welcomed migrant populations from Sudan, Togo, Bhutan and several Central American countries “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture. We need to be learning about all these different cultures.” He loves that America is still a melting pot. “You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it . That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”
Growing up in Benin he absorbed dance and drumming through repeated exposure to it.
“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that,” he says.
In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16.
“That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”
Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met the woman who is now his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist in 2001.
Ahovissi sends money back home every month to his large family – he has 21 brothers and sisters living in Benin. “I’m they’re hope,” he says.