Dance | Europe

Therapeutic bum wriggling

French dancer Maïmouna Coulibaly took to African dance to process experiences of sexual violence and a conservative upbringing. Now she helps others do the same with her “Booty therapy”
Portrait: Maimouna Coulibaly looks into the camera, she is wearing an elegant hat and lip stick

French dancer Maïmouna Coulibaly has been living in Berlin since 2018

For centuries, perhaps even millennia, swaying the hips and wriggling the buttocks has featured in many traditional African dances. It was a part of trance-rituals to invoke fertility goddesses. But in my family, which is named after a royal Dynasty in Mali, this type of dance is considered humiliating.

Twerking, by the way, is criticised from all sides, even by feminists. I’m used to that. When you see the movement, you might think of performances like that of singer Miley Cyrus, who caused a sensation with it at the MTV Awards 2013. However, that is more an example of how the framing changes when a white person adopts a practice from a different culture. What the critics don’t know is that we don’t wiggle our bums to awaken male desire, but rather to work with the emotions that live in this part of the body. 

Dancing to process the trauma of sexual violence

The booty therapy that I offer is about expressing and processing trauma in ways other than using words, through the combination of pelvic movement and screaming. For many women, it also helps them to simply accept their body and stand by it. For me personally, this dance made me more resilient: using it I was able to face the ghosts that followed me after I had repeatedly suffered sexism and sexual violence since my childhood. When I was three years old I was genitally mutilated during a trip to Mali and raped several times as a child and young adult.

I discovered my love for dance when I was four years old. I didn’t speak French then, but Soninké, as we had just returned from a longer stay in Mali. Because I couldn’t understand the people in France, I observed them all the more intensely and paid attention to their appearance and movements. 

One particular event has remained in my memory. One time there was a show on TV with Claude François, a famous singer at the time. He had blonde hair and was accompanied by “Clodettes”, a troop of lightly clad dancers. The moment I saw him on the screen in our living room, my Muslim parents began to pray.

“We don’t wiggle our bums to awaken male desire, but rather to work with the emotions that live in this part of the body”

The simultaneity of the two scenes, the sparkling costumes and naked legs of the young ladies on one side, and the religious ritual of my parents on the other, fascinated me. For my father and mother, the idea of me take dance classes was inconceivable. They didn’t have the money, and more importantly, dancing was considered unworthy in our caste. In our culture, only Griots, the poets and storytellers who pass on traditional knowledge in oral form, get recognition as artists.

Nonetheless, when I was 13 years old, my parents eventually gave in to my pleas. They signed me up to a jazz dance course in my town. I was a very angry, quick-tempered teenager, and my parents hoped this hobby might have a calming effect on me. It worked.

It took a few more years however for me to discover the strength that lies in the pelvis. In the end it was a Congolese teacher who taught me to move my butt in 1993. At first, he despaired at my awkward hip swings. And one evening it clicked: we were performing a dance show in a youth centre in Grigny, a small town near Paris. Two small spotlights lit up the hall. Even my boyfriend was there.

I felt clumsy compared to the other girls, who seemed very beautiful and had more feminine shapes than me. But when the music sounded, something unexpected happened. A completely new kind of energy entered my pelvis and I finally dared to swing. It was as though I was flying – and reclaiming that part of my body that had so often been abused.

“This dance made me more resilient: using it I was able to face the ghosts that followed me after I had repeatedly suffered sexism and sexual violence since my childhood”

Since then, the “Spirals” – that is what I call the vibrations of my pelvis – are an important part of my life. From 1996 I began to teach dancing courses in various community centres across the suburbs of Paris, both in Ndombolo and traditional African dances, but also Ragga and Dancehall. Inspired by this, and after a trip to Mali, I worked on my Booty Therapy.

Motherhood, pregnancy and the birth of my children were also important experiences that influenced my reflections on this practice. I realised that as a woman you can experience extraordinary, intense things with your vagina, not just ecstasy or violence. My first daughter was not even a year old when I established my dance company Les Ambianceuses in 2002.

After I gave birth to my second daughter in 2010, I laid down the basic outlines of Booty Therapy as I teach it today, although I am constantly developing it. It’s a mixture of different elements from African dances – alongside the previously mentioned Congolese Ndombolo, some, for example, Coupé Decalé from the Ivory Coast –  and a bit of fitness and psychology. I also add my knowledge from theatre and African philosophy.

At this time, my dance courses and I were already known beyond the borders of France. In 2006 I began to teach courses in Germany. This was followed by invitations to the US and Sweden in 2008, and to England in 2009. It was an exciting life of travel, inspiring encounters and wonderful performances.

The ‘sister of a terrorist’

But then, in January 2015, a wave of attacks shook through France. It was a Wednesday morning, the 7th of January 2015, when I learned there had been an attack on the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo.” I immediately became scared that my little brother, who had already been in prison several times, was involved in the whole thing. I had seen him a few days before, he had seemed tense and had asked me strange questions about the number of hours I was able to go without sleep.

Then I read that the culprits were the two brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi. But on the next day it happened. My brother shot a black policewoman. I could’ve heard the shot, I lived fifty metres from the crime scene. My alarm clock had failed to ring. It was only on the Friday that I grasped that my brother was involved in the terrorist attack in the Jewish supermarket “Hyper Cacher.”

My sisters called me many times, all speaking at once, and I needed several hours to register what had happened. Then my phone rang non-stop: the press, colleagues, acquaintances, friends, even those I hadn’t heard from in a while, all called me to ask questions, to offer help or to confront me. It felt as though the whole world was crashing down on me. 

Journalists tried to sneak into my classes by pretending to be students, or they stood in the entrance of the studio. These experiences have completely changed my relationship with strangers. I had no choice: I had become the “sister of.” I felt lost and angry. In the following months I put on twenty kilos. The whole story of my brother, his deeds and his death, stayed stuck in me. I couldn’t find a way to express my feelings. The only place I could flee to was my dance lessons.

Booty therapy to build resilience

It was only on a trip from Mississippi to California in August 2017 that I began to recognise what had happened with my brother. I could finally release my grief: my tears flowed for the duration of the flight. I had a new desire to write about myself and my dancing. I didn’t want to keep being referred back to my brother. Paradoxically, my manuscript was published thanks to Camille Emmanuelle, wife of the caricaturist “Luz”, who works for “Charlie Hebdo” and survived the attacks. I met the publisher in 2014, when she had come to one of my dance courses, and she immediately agreed to publish my story.

“To publicise my dance classes, I organised flash mobs in public places: at the Alexanderplatz, on the platforms of the U-Bahn or S-Bahn”

Even so, I was only able to finish the book when I was no longer living in France. In September 2018, a year after I had met a German in Los Angeles, I came to Berlin with my two daughters. To publicise my dance classes, I organised flash mobs in different places: at the Alexanderplatz, on the platforms of the U-Bahn or S-Bahn. Through word of mouth I was quickly able to build up a new customer base for my courses.

I was surprised by how few black people live in Berlin. And, compared to Paris, racism is far more blatant. But new doors were also opened: I was able to give several solo performances, and I met people from the Burlesque scenes and LGBTQ+ circles. In France you have to rely on a network to achieve something. Here, my cultural background is undoubtedly an advantage and enables me to keep creating new work.

As told to Cécile Calla, translated to English by Ysanne Cremer