The Dance of the High Spirit: An Apprenticeship in Stilt Dancing

ACTA - Posted on 10 July 2010

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“The height of success is infinite.” - Shaka Zulu

Mukudji, or stilt dance, is a form of West African cultural expression responsible for maintaining and affirming a community's values through ritual activities, festivals, and celebrations.  Nyon Kwuyos or Nyomokwuyas (stilt dancers) are extraordinarily skilled dancers who perform spectacular stunts and movements to live drums.  They are the mediums to the spirit world representing spirits that protect villages.  Stilt dancing is also found throughout the Caribbean, but is known as Moko Jumbi, an unmasked version of Mukudji, and is done primarily for entertainment.  The form requires focus, agility, dexterity, strength, stamina, power, grace, and most importantly spiritual connectedness.

New Orleans native Shaka Zulu is a fourth generation Nyon Kwuyo who was initiated into the stilt dancing society at age 15.  There is over 100 years of experience in Shaka's family between his grandfather, father, himself, and his daughter.  Zohar Isreal, his father and founder of the Free Spirit Dancers in New Orleans, was Shaka's first teacher.  Shaka also trained with the late Baba Kwame Ishangi in New Orleans who initiated him into the Elgede mask dance society.

As part of ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, Zulu worked with Oakland-based dancer, choreographer and cultural organizer Latanya Tigner in an apprenticeship in Mukudji, which has developed over generations in New Orleans and the Carribean.  The apprenticeship focused on the history and purpose of Mukudji and the role of the Nyon Kwuyo.  Tigner also learned techniques and stunts, the development of characters/personalities during presentations, costume design and construction, as well as stilt construction and maintenance.

This video shows footage of a lesson between the two working on stilt dancing techniques at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland, and includes Zulu’s reflections upon Mukudji’s roots, the activation of female practitioners as a return to ancient traditions, and historical and familial connections between New Orleans and Oakland.

For more information on Shaka Zulu and images of Mukudji dancers in full regalia, go to

ACTA's Comment Disclaimer

Shaka Zulu was guest artist in a project called "Higher Ground," an after-school classes in African stilt dancing for about 160 elementary school children each year.  The program is produced by Prescott Circus Theater in Oakland, CA.

I wish I could attend this. From my perspective video work samples are one of the most important and potentially persuasive components of a grant proposal. I spend a lot of time telling applicants how video work samples can make their applications more competitive and how a poorly edited work sample can hurt them.

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