Modern-day Cinderella story teaches life lessons

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Guinea, West African dancer educator and motivator “Mama” Kadiatou Conte-Forte is on a mission to use her culture and passion for dance to educate today’s younger generation.

“I’m teaching people who dance under me that they need to go off and get their own home, own car and own job. It’s not a competition to bring babies into this world. You won’t benefit from that. I educate women around me everyday. They have to have a role model and they have to stop blaming others. Their life is in their hands and we have to do what we have to do to make it a good one,” explained Kadiatou, 58, who resides in Highland Park.

balafon
BALAFON WEST AFRICAN DANCE COMPANY (Photos by Erin Perry)

With the creation of “Kiridi (The Orphan),” Mama Kadiatou weaves a modern Cinderella story that stands the test of time. Set in a traditional African village, “Kiridi” tells the tale of a young woman who is forbidden to dance and be with the man she loves thanks to her evil stepmother and step­sisters.

“I tried to create something for the family and put in singing and dancing. This is the first time I choreographed everything—the dancing, singing and acting. I’m playing the evil step mother,” said Kadiatou who has been dancing since she was five years old.

Kadiatou’s inspiration for “Kiridi” came from a shocking custom that takes place in Guinea.

“In Africa, a man can marry a woman—up to four wives—but he still has the right to go out of the marriage and have a baby by another woman and he can bring that baby into the home for his wife to raise,” she said. “That hurts the woman’s feelings and the man is disrespecting her. It is hard for the woman to love the step child because the child was not born in her womb but it’s up to the stepmother to love that child.”

Kadiatou’s own life experience mirrors some of the themes that are prevalent in “Kiridi.”

“My mom married my dad in an arranged marriage and she never loved my father. My mother left me with my dad and I was raised by my dad and stepmother,” she said.

“My stepmother was nice and kind and I was blessed to be with a woman who was kind to me. I can’t say that she was in love with me, but I grew up loving her,” said Kadiatou who serves as artistic director of the Pittsburgh-based Balafon West African Dance Company.

Kadiatou wants to make sure that women are careful who they sleep with.

“Women must be careful who they deal with. They have to take time to get to know the man because they can get pregnant. This story is taking place everywhere, not just in Africa and the United States. Most of the children don’t know about the other children. I want people to be able to discuss these issues,” she said.

“Kiridi (The Orphan)” ran at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater last month as part of the theater’s East Liberty Live series.

“I am so thankful to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater for doing this partnership with me,” Kadiatou said.

In 1970 Kadiatou was chosen to dance with the Les Ballet Africans, the international dance company of Guinea where she became one of the company’s top dancers.

From 1970 to 1985 she traveled and performed to sold-out audiences across the globe including Spain, Japan, Australia, the United States and in almost every country in Africa.

When she was on tour in the United States, Kadiatou fell in love with our country’s African-American community and vowed to return and bring her culture to all who wanted to learn about it.

Kadiatou returned to the United States in 1985 by way of the nation’s capital serving as an educator, teacher, motivator and of course dancer.

She became a force in the African arts community, bridging the gap between Guinean culture and the Washington, D.C., community. She has taught at George Washington University, the Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts and the University of Maryland.

“Dance is a healing balm for people. All of us are not going to be dancers, but we need to do something active. Dancing heals you and when you are dancing you feel beautiful and you are beautiful. I’m going to be dancing for the rest of my life,” she said.

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