BRISTOL — Against the backdrop of a steady beat of African drums, Soriba Simbo Camara leapt and twisted, his body, contorting rhythmically to the sound. He carried a cow’s tail in one hand, a symbol of power in Guinean culture, and wore a traditional West African shirt. The dance was feverish but graceful, and at its end, Camara catapulted his body from the ground in a tremendous jump.
Camara wiped the sheen of sweat from his brow, and caught his breath.
“It keeps you young,” he said, grinning just as he had all through the dance.
Welcome to Camara’s studio, in the basement of his Bristol home. Tucked down a long dirt driveway away from the village, it’s here that Camara is perfecting his craft. A native of West African nation of Guinea, he is among the foremost African dancers in the world. Teaching and performing the traditional dances of his native country takes Camara around the world.
But he divides most of his time between Bristol, where Camara lives with his wife and two children, and the family’s second home in Guinea. He admitted that Vermont is certainly a change of pace from Guinea — the weather, the food, the culture, everything is different, he said — but for the family of four, it’s home.
Camara ended up in Vermont by a twist of fate: He married a Vermonter. Lynn Camara was born in Charlotte, and headed to Guinea after college to study African drumming and dancing. She met Simbo through a friend in Conakry, the country’s capitol, and from the get-go was mesmerized by his skills as a dancer.
“It was just so much fun to watch him perform,” Lynn said.
In the five years the couple has been together, they’ve bounced around the country, living for a time in Indiana, Burlington, and Atlanta, Ga. But when they found out that Lynn was pregnant with their second child, they decided to move closer to friends and family to raise their two children.
But Camara is still dancing, just as he always has. He was born in Conakry, and when he was a small boy he began mimicking the performances of dancers in the national ballet. The companies in his region of West Africa are called “ballets,” a holdover from the French colonization of the region, but the dances bear no resemblance to the Western ballets Americans first think of.
Dancing and drumming play an important role in the social fabric of Guinean life, Camara explained, and early on his family and neighbors recognized that he had a knack for performing. So, when Camara grew older, he began training to be a professional dancer. As a young man in Guinea, Camara danced with some of Africa’s foremost dance companies, including Les Ballets Africains, Guinea’s world-renowned national dance company.
Now, Camara teaches African dancing in Charlotte and Middlebury in addition to traveling to out-of-state workshops. He’s also served several residencies in local schools, including the Gailer School, and will spend some time at the Salisbury Community School in March.
Camara tries to go back to Guinea every year, to see his family and take in the sights, smells and tastes of his home. He also arranges trips to Africa for dance students. In West Africa, Guinea is a hub for studying African dancing and drumming, Lynn said, in part because the country was the first French colony in Africa to win its independence. That status helped Guinean traditions to remain very much intact.
There’s much he misses about his country, particularly the importance that dance and music have in everyday life. He demonstrated a type of rhythmic, energetic dancing that he said was typical at “doundounbas,” or street parties.
“Here, we sit,” Camara said. But in Guinea, he and his friends and family will gather their chairs in a circle to dance in the street, and they’ll spend hours dancing and drumming every day.
For Camara, the chance to travel and teach about his culture and his dancing is an opportunity he cherishes. It comes after years of hard work at the national dance company, which is owned by the government. In years past, dancers have been paid well for their work, but now it’s hard to scrape by as a professional dancer in Guinea. Camara said that many dancers at Les Ballet Africains work hard — “every day, all day” — to perfect their art, but they don’t have the same chances to travel and make a living.
Plus, he’s excited to share Guinean traditions with Vermonters, many of whom he’s found excited to give African dancing a try. Sometimes it takes a few classes to get the hang of such a new style of dancing, but if “it’s in your heart,” Camara said, the classes can be exhilarating.
“It’s like an anti-depressant,” Lynn agreed. “It makes you feel very joyful.”
Camara will take the stage in Addison County on Dec. 17 at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury with his drum and dance troupe “Africa Djolie.” He leads weekly dance classes in Charlotte on Monday evenings at the Charlotte Congregational Church vestry, and on Saturday mornings in Middlebury at the Town Hall Theater (this week, the Middlebury class has been canceled while Camara performs in Ottawa, Canada).
He also teaches drumming classes directly following both dance classes in Charlotte and Middlebury.
You can view videos of Camara drumming and dancing at our Web site, www.addisonindependent.com.