World Arts West
SF Ethnic Dance Festival


Ballet Lisanga Performing Arts Company

First appearance in SF EDF: 2005

Ballet Lisanga was created in 2004 to preserve and promote the Congolese performance tradition and to carry on the work of their teachers who passed on before them. Artistic Director Renée Puckett was a member and Assistant Director of the late Malonga Casquelourd’s cherished Fua Dia Congo Dance Company, as well as the Ceedo Senegalese Dance Company. Fua Dia Congo participated in some of the first San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festivals.


DANCE ORIGIN: Congo, Central Africa
GENRE: Traditional
TITLE: Etumba-Essombi
DANCERS: Shauna Badger, Glenna Baker, Lauren Dunford, Neema Foster, Leta Hately, Bontle Willis Jacobs, Kreshenda Jenkins, Kellie Star Jones, Rasheda Jones, Pam Lige, Jia Taylor, Dominique Walker
MUSICIANS: Saul Arrechea (ngoma), Kele Nitoto (ngoma), David Palacios (ngoma)

Photo by Mark Muntean

Within the central forests of the Congo basin, Etumba-Essombi is a warrior dance among bantu-speaking Mongo people. Here, an all-woman dance company performs this traditionally male dance. A tribe prepares to fight for protection from neighboring warriors. With drum song, chant, and dance, they bind in solidarity and call to ancestors for protection and spiritual strength. The choreography and movements of this dance are unique among Congolese dance forms. As tribal leaders meet and agree to war, warriors perform a choreographed battle with deft, quick footwork. Wielding shields and swords, their shoulders go one way as their hips go another.

The Congo is home to one of the oldest sacred practices of Central Africa, a religion of divination called Bulamanganga. This religion was in existence centuries before Africa’s colonization and is practiced today by several tribes, including the Mongo. The religion—and Mongo tribal structure—emphasizes ancestor worship and honors spirits of the natural world responsible for fertility and sorcery.

The Mongo are one of the Congo’s three largest ethnic groups. Although they work in the local and national economy, attend schools, and many have converted to Christianity, they’ve also kept a strong tribal and ethnic identity. Their society is based on kinship, lineages, and covenants. In rural life, traditional beliefs and practices are most alive, and it’s an old practice represented in this dance. In the countryside, Mongo are hunters, using ropes with nooses, nets, bows and arrows, and long stabbing spears, as well as fishers and farmers. The costume shows a rural design, with body paint and other symbols to represent power and fortitude.

The drum has critical importance in any African dance ritual as a symbol of life and the continuity of heritage. At the heart of Ballet Lisanga’s Etumba-Essombi beats the vibrant energy of the traditional sacred Congolese ngoma drum—with ancient rhythms called Etumba and Essombi, used throughout the centuries at births, weddings, funerals, and healing rituals. In the Congolese tradition, these powerful drums sounded communication between villages and called to spirits of ancestors to journey across lands to offer protection and blessing.



: Traditional Dance of the Malinke
TITLE: Nimba
DANCERS: Saul Arrechea, Shauna Badger, Pharoah Brand, Danielle Delane, Abdoulaye Diakite, Summer Downing, Neema Foster, Regine Grier, Maafi Gueye, Martaina Hardaway, Felicia Harris, Tamika Harris-Mason, Taiji Hill, Marsha Holmes, Marion Maire, Nikka Maynard, Tanya Powell, Mischa Pugh, Qiyamah Shabazz, Ken Tuggles, Joshua Washington, Bontle Willis-Jacobs,
MUSICANS: Saul Arrechea, Abdoulaye Dlakite

The Baga people are a small group of 45,000 who live along the coast of Guinea, West Africa. The art of the Baga revolves around nature, the harvest, and the veneration of feminine beauty. These social and spiritual elements are combined in D'mba, or Nimba. Nimba is a woman who has been fertile, has given birth to several children, and has nurtured them to adulthood. As a sign of her fertility, her hair is braided into parallel rows, echoing patterns of agriculture in West African fields. Her face and breasts are decorated with scarification, demonstrating her power to change her condition within the natural environment.

Baga Nimba is a divinity, but she primarily represents the ideal female in human society - a woman of great power, beauty, and affective presence. She is invoked and welcomed with joy at births, marriages, and harvest ceremonies in Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and Liberia. Baga dancers are famous for their Nimba headdress, one of the largest ritual objects in West Africa. This is a monumental, wooden mask, with a large nose, u-shaped ears, and hanging breasts.

Renee Puckett's new choreography, titled Nimba, is a dance of devotion and worship of the Malinke, a people group who can be found throughout West Africa. The setting is a West African village, as the goddess arrives to bless the gathering. The dancers sway, waiting for Baga Nimba to arrive. Then they reach towards her in devotion, and escort her around the stage to interact with villagers. The celebration builds—signaled by a kakalambe rhythm from the Mali—and the villagers dance with exuberance, welcoming Baga Nimba to their home.

Ballet Lisanga presents three generations of Senegalese dancers—Allassane Kane, former member of the National Ballet of Senegal and teacher as the Director of Ceedo Senegalese Dance Company; and Renee Puckett, Artistic Director of Ballet Lisanga, and her students.

The drum is critical in African dance ritual, as an exuberant symbol of life and of the continuity of heritage. Drummers Djanco Drame’ and Moussa Djalo have been drumming in their village of Tambacounda for over 25 years. They currently have their own dance and drum company by the name of Djembe Rhythms in West Africa.




DANCE ORIGIN:         Central Africa
GENRE: Congolese/Balari Ethnic Group
CHOREOGRAPHER:      Renee Puckett
PRODUCTION MANAGEMENT: Neema Foster, Mason Larkin
DANCERS: Shauna Badger, Danielle Dalane, Summer Downing, Shalena Edwards, Regine Grier, Darrio Hutton, Janelle Larkin, Adaoha Lumumba, Netifnet Lumumba, Nikka Maynard, Kysha Mitchell, Renee Pukett, Qiyamah Shabazz, Bontle Willis-Jacobs, Jacque Willis-McGhee
DRUMMERS: Saul Arrechea, Laura Borela, Masengou Constant, Mbaye Louvouve

The Congo, on the continent of Africa, is often mistaken as a country when it actually consists of two neighboring countries in Central Africa that are divided by the Congo River. The smaller of the two countries, the Republic of the Congo, sometimes called Congo-Brazzaville, is a former French colony to the west, whereas the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also referred to as Congo-Kinshasa (formerly Zaire), the third largest country on the African continent, was a Belgian colony.

The Balari are one of over two hundred tribal groups in the Congos. Residing in the dense tropical rain forest in the south of Congo-Brazzaville, the Balari had a rich musical tradition traveling from village to village with songs of love, death and friendship, and playing ritual music for funerals. With an animistic faith, the Balari’s religion centers on ancestor and spirit sects that play a large role in their societal social and political organization.

The markets in Brazzaville overwhelm the senses with vivid colors, pungent smells, and boisterous sounds. Merchants sell handmade fabrics, baskets and aphrodisiac charms. Vendors display popular foods such as fresh meats, caterpillars, peanut butter, and the ubiquitous tuberous root crop, cassava (tapioca).

Ballet Lisanga presents the popular secular dance known as Boucher. Competing Balari marketplace vendors perform this dance to ensure a successful day of selling. Ballet Lisanga’s version depicts butchers using the dance to attract customers, as they always buy meat from the butcher who has the best performers.

The drum takes on critical importance in any African dance ritual because it is a symbol of life and of the continuity of heritage. One of the oldest drums of Congo is the tall, cylindrical standing drum, the n’goma, played throughout centuries at births, weddings, funerals, healing rituals and as a way for one village to communicate with another. It is believed that by using this drum, participants can communicate with the spirits of their ancestors.


DANCERS: Shauna Badger, Regine Grier, Maafi Gueye, Lita Hadley, Kellie Jones, Faheema Kayaba, Daphne Knight, Kushawna, Kysha Mitchell, Bontle Willis
Saul Arrechea (drum), Laura Borela (drum), Constant Massengou (lead drum)

The Congo is home to one of the oldest sacred practices of Central Africa, a religion called Bulamanganga. In existence centuries before Africa's colonization, it is a religion practiced even today by several tribes, including the Mongo. There are over 200 cultures that make up Africa. The Mongo are one of the four largest tribes. The Mongos emphasize ancestor worship and believe strongly in spirits of the natural world responsible for fertility, magic, sorcery, and witchcraft. Divination plays an important role in the Mongo's practices. Family kinship is central to Mongo social structure as communities are organized around lineage and covenants between lineages.

The drum takes on critical importance in any African dance ritual because it is a symbol of life and of the continuity of heritage. Ballet Lisanga performs, Etumba-Essombi, using the traditional Congolese drum, the N'goma, which has been used throughout centuries at births, weddings, funerals, healing rituals and as a way for one village to communicate with another. It is believed that by using this drum, participants can communicate with the Mongo people and ask for blessings and guidance. Their spirits journey across lands to offer protection.

Etumba-Essombi is a warrior dance that reflects the struggle for power, land and the survival of the clan. It is danced for protection, to maintain and strengthen group solidarity and for the self-preservation of the tribe. The costumes are recreations of Mongo dress and utilize important symbols of the Mongo people that represent power and fortitude.

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