Kyaien Conner has been dancing since she was five years old and became a professional West African dancer at age 14. She has performed all over the world and received multiple accolades for her choreography. Here in the Bay area she is recognized through her performances and choreography with the Kuumba Dancers and Drummers, a popular troupe noted for its high energy, mesmerizing rhythms and celebration of traditional African culture.
Beyond her performances, Conner has taught multiple community workshops on Guinea and Senegalese dance in Tampa, Ocala and Pittsburgh and at the university level, she has taught at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Africana Studies, the University of Tampa Theatre and Dance Department and the University of South Florida Theater and Dance Department. She has trained more than 50 students in West African dance at the Hill Dance Academy Theater in Pittsburgh and last year, Kya traveled to Russia as part of a cultural fusion touring group from the United States.
“My ultimate goal as an artist is to strengthen, honor and preserve the rich history of West African dance and music. I focus on West African dance, as opposed to northern, eastern or central Africa, because the vast majority of African slaves came to this country from West Africa (e.g. Ivory Coast, Guinea and Senegal etc.). African-Americans derive a great deal of our musicality, and modern dance forms (e.g. hip-hop, stepping etc.) from this West African ancestry, albeit largely unconsciously.”
Conner frequently travels to Guinea, Senegal and South Africa, where she has trained extensively under master artists in Djembe, Kutiro and Savar dance. On a trip to Senegal, she received the honorary name “Mame Djara” from the Serer people in Dakar for her training in the Senegalese dance and drum culture, as well as for her work with children in the impoverished communities there.
While her creative career is fueled by her passion for West African Dance, Conner has an accomplished academic career. She attended the University of Pittsburgh where she received a master’s degree in social work, a master’s degree in public health with a specialization in minority health and health disparities, and a PhD in social work. She is currently an assistant professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida, where her research examines cultural adaptations to evidence-based treatments for mental health and wellness.
But you might say that these days Kyaien Conner hears the call of a different drum.
Over the years, she began to think about her development as an artist and as a teacher and mentor in the African dance and drumming community. Coupling that with her work in cultural diversity and mental health, she began to envision an annual conference that would use the cultural richness of West African culture to strengthen her community. Conner began planning a way of bringing master teaching artists and cultural experts to Tampa to participate in an immersive weekend full of dance, drumming, singing, food and, even, handmade goods.
“While I have spent my life training in West African dance and teaching to preserve the art form, I realized it was important for the community to be exposed to the same master teachers that I had the honor of training under. These master artists carry with them the full history of West African dance traditions and movements. Unfortunately, most [in our community] will never have the opportunity to travel to Africa.”
That kind of thinking is allowing her to blend her two professional passions, a love for West African dance and her focus on the health/wellness of families and communities. Now it is driving her plans for Tampa’s first West African dance and drum conference in Sept. in a location accessible to the local African-American community. This first event is tentatively titled “Mind, Body and Spirit: Celebrating the Beauty of West African Dance and Drum” but, each year it is likely the conference would, according to Conner, have a different theme and dimension.
In fact, it was that passion, experience and her solid vision for the conference that led a six-member panel of art professionals to rank her application to the Arts Council’s 2017 Artist Grant program with the highest score of all applications. “Although this project may seem ambitious to most,” says Conner, “this project is something that I am incredibly passionate about but I think is extremely realistic based upon my experiences and achievements.”
The three-day conference is tentatively set for Sept. 8-10 later this year, will feature 10 guest artists. While it is focused on West African dance and drum it is open to ALL members of the community. “Certainly individuals of all races, ethnicities and creeds would benefit from such an event,” says Conner, “this event would be incredibly relevant to the local community of African Americans who will have an opportunity to be exposed to the arts of their ancestors through music and dance.”
In addition to the $3,000 Arts Council grant, other sponsors or in-kind contributions are needed to cover costs for the conference which include artist honorariums, their travel, space rental and promotional materials.