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Gabriele Tesemma Tesfa: An Ethiopian Modern Dancer

By Lillu Tesfa

Born in Addis and raised in Senegalia, a small coastal town in the province of Ancona, Italy, Tesemma finally joined his family in the US at the age of 19. When he first came, we could barely communicate with each other. He couldn't speak Amharic and his English, much like my Italian, was more textbook than conversation. So we learned about each other's respective passions in a weird mix of my broken Italian with his broken English. But in just a few months, Tesemma was conversant in English and in happy pursuit of two of his passions: music and dance.

While still in Italy, at the age of 15, he had started taking ballet as a way to get fit. And although that exercise achieved the desired objective, the movements didn't really speak to his nature as a man of African blood. It wasn't until after he'd spent some time in the US and he started training as a modern dancer that everything clicked. The mild interest in funky jazz/aerobic dance he'd harbored while still in Italy had suddenly blossomed into a self realization of sorts.

Tesemma's epiphany was brought on by a black and white photo of a dancer caught in mid-motion. This arresting picture was of a black man in the halo of the spotlight, his back arched pushing his head nearly all the way down to the floor and his arms thrown up to the sky as though catching himself up. The movement expressed so much freedom and abandonment, that it held Tesemma's attention rapt and has stayed with him ever since. The vision of that nameless man (it wasn't until much later that Tesi found out the man in the photograph was Alvin Ailey, a pioneer modern dancer and choreographer, and the founder of the now famous Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York city) inspired Tesemma so much that it sparked off his latent desire and he started searching for movements that would make him feel the way he had when he had first seen that picture.

This led to dance lessons in New York city for two years until he was offered a position with the Philadanco, a predominantly black dance company in Philadelphia. Gabriele (pronouced Gabrielé) Tesemma Tesfa is currently the principal male dancer at Philadanco. Tesemma was attracted to Philadanco's 32 years of history as a dance company that was formed to give opportunities largely denied to black dancers and which has since grown from a grassroots company to one that is nationally renowned. Philadanco (also known as a dance repertoire company as they work with many choreographers as opposed to just one) tours all over the US and internationally, introducing novice eyes to their particular version of the funky modern dance form.

But prior to that, prior to attempting to immerse himself in a wholly artistic world, he had to talk first his mother and then his father, into it. His mother, he said, was resigned early on to his artistic bent as he was already a musician, a talented guitar player in a touring band in Italy. Still, she pushed him to find a "more practical" profession that would provide him with a livelihood. He finally won her over when he assured her that he was going to take himself to the highest possible place in his chosen profession as he knew that was the only way he could make a living at it and saw that as his ultimate responsibility. His father thought it was simply a phase, one that he would surely outgrow. However, when he realized that his youngest child was indeed serious in his chosen career, he simply stepped aside and "out of the way," as he knew that Tesemma, by then a young man of 21, was going to do what he was going to do.

Now, after four years as a dancer for the Philadanco, the last year and a half spent as principal dancer, Tesemma is a master of his chosen art form and feels that sometimes he can communicate his emotions better in dance with his body than he can with words. "A certain range of emotions are better described through art forms such as dance," he explains to me, "because the smallest movements are so visual, so immediate and direct." He feels that, because Philadanco is predominantly black, he can express himself as a black dancer, better able to find and define himself as a man of African heritage, people that he can relate to on a more intrinsic level. "A lot of questions were answered for me in terms of certain feelings and sentiments toward and from people," he says. "In Italy, I constantly found myself questioning why I moved so differently from my peers who were Caucasian. Now I realize that there are different ways of doing things that is in the African blood.

"Dancing really is an expression of emotion through what you can do with your body. As a professional dancer, you have an obligation to make what you do look as good as how it makes you feel and then communicate that to your audience." According to Tesemma, proficiency as a dancer depends on a combination of technique and talent. "Technique can be taught," he asserts, "but talent - and to a large extent determination and commitment - are what make the difference between those who can make it in the dance world and those who don't. The perfect dancer is one who has successfully combined all four elements."

Tesemma is also proud of being the only Ethiopian he knows of in the modern dance world. He says that gives him a different edge, makes him a pretty original individual: "I am not an African-American, but I'm still a man from Africa and I'm definitely proud of my heritage as an Ethiopian as I view Ethiopians as rather unique, so I'm really keen on expressing my unique diversity within the company. In terms of an emotional package, I can definitely bring a lot of different things to the table using my background as someone who grew up in Europe, or better yet as an Ethiopian or a black man who was raised in Europe."

For instance, he can see a relationship between the Ethiopian iskista and the African-American hip-hop dance. "You can actually see traces of that style in hip-hop. There is a relationship there indicating that hip-hop is a dance movement generated in Africa, that iskista was just the Ethiopian version and whatever crossed the ocean from west Africa became what we see in hip-hop today."

But a dancer's life on stage is only for a limited time and Tesemma is well aware of this and looks ahead to the future with more plans and dreams. Currently, he's exploring opportunities in school, and hopes to earn a degree in music composition and theory. Armed with his extensive training as a dancer and his skills as a musician, he hopes to be able to combine the two one day, either composing music for his dance moves or choreographing dance moves to his music.

(For more information on Philadanco, go to www.philadanco.org)

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