Dancer for the stars: Selasi Dogbatse is performing at Brussels Bijou

© Saskia Vanderstichele
| Selasi Dogbatse: 'I finally have the freedom to tell my own story.'

Whenever Selasi Dogbatse gets introduced, the names of the stars for whom she danced are always mentioned: Rihanna, Missy Elliott, and Cardi B. Or The Voice Belgium, for which she created the choreo­graphies. Or her singing sister Esinam. But today, at her workspace, it is all about her.

About Selasi Dogbatse

  • Was born and raised in Belgium, as the daughter of Ghanaian parents
  • Is the sister of the multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer Esinam Dogbatse
  • Started dancing at a very young age and became passionate about hip hop, house, and dancehall
  • Moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, where she worked as a dancer for urban stars such as Missy Elliott, Rihanna, and Cardi B
  • Made the choreographies for the talent show The Voice Belgique for several years
  • Is now presenting her own work A Piece of Me at Brussels Bijou

Selasi Dogbatse is one of the artists who will soon be performing at Bozar during Brussels Bijou. The competition, organized by Zinnema, Bozar, BRUZZ, and the Flemish Community Commission is intended to help Brussels-based theatre makers, musicians, choreographers, dancers, and other performing artists to take their first steps in the professional circuit.

Dogbatse has actually already taken many such steps. For several years, she has been responsible for the choreographies on The Voice, and for the past four years, she has been taking regular trips to America, since she started appearing in the shows of the aforementioned stars there. But she is now very happy to have the opportunity to make something all of her own in her hometown.

A Piece of Me is the title of the short piece that she is preparing in the rehearsal room of the Fred Academy, a stone's throw from the Barricadenplein/Place des Barricades. This is very familiar territory for her because it is apparently the room where she once took her very first dance steps.

Dogbatse: “I still live just around the corner with my mother and my sister. I was once at a fancy fair with my mother and when she saw how I watched a dance performance with rapt attention, she immediately enrolled me in music classes at the academy in Sint-Joost/Saint-Josse, where you have to take dance classes from the second year. In total, I studied music for five years and dance for four. Initially I studied classical dance, and then also learned contemporary and jazz, but breakdance and especially hip hop are the styles that I absolutely love. I have always stayed in touch with the director of Fred Academy, and I still rehearse here every year for The Voice.”

The Voice was, of course, a milestone. “I was about eighteen when I decided that I would dedicate my life to dance, and I was about twenty-one when I got a call from Jean-Michel Germys, who was then the head of entertainment at RTBF. The conversation lasted an hour, but I didn't actually know what it was about. Another hour later I finally found out that I was going to be doing The Voice and I was immediately sent some music to work with.” It was an excellent learning opportunity for a dancer who still had to take her first steps as a choreographer. “I had taught a few dance classes before, with a show at the end of the year, but at The Voice I sometimes had to come up with five choreographies in one day.”

Where does she get all her ideas? Is a big white rehearsal space with a mirror really so inspirational? “I am often inspired by things that I experience. A discussion with my mother (laughs), or a birthday party with friends combined with a certain song can inspire me to move in certain ways. Nowadays I can create anywhere: even in a bedroom, or in my head while I'm waiting at the bus stop. It is true that it becomes limiting if you spend too much time in the same rehearsal space. That's why travelling is very important. Other dancers, other music, other cultures … they nourish your spirit.”

Selasi Dogbatse was offered plenty of new experiences. Very far away from the Fred Academy in LA with Rihanna and her entourage. “It's true, that is a completely different world. It is all pure showbiz and as a dancer, you are relegated to the second row, behind the musician and in function of their show. I also enjoy that, though, and I learn a lot from it because there is a different mentality in the States. My impression is that art is still highly valued there. Rehearsals are taken incredibly seriously. Organizing something with dancers is very important. In Europe we tend to do things more tamely. Not fifty sequined dancers but just the voice of one single singer. What are we missing? Perhaps daring to take the risk of going a bit further and organizing something so grand that it makes you dream.”

Does she ever have any personal contact with the stars? “They keep their distance, but of course they are there during rehearsals and they are just ordinary and even unassuming people. We don't have long chats, but if you spend a week practicing with Rihanna, then of course there are moments when she comes to ask how you are. Missy Elliott is very involved, and she watches the dancers individually. That can be stressful, but I can definitely identify with that commitment and perfectionism.”

Hip hop
Back to Brussels. “This competition comes at exactly the right time. Four years ago, all I wanted was to dance for the stars and live the American dream. But now I really want to do something in Brussels again. A friend encouraged me to apply to Brussels Bijou, and I am very happy to have been selected. There never used to be a platform like this. Now I have the freedom to tell my story through dance. I want to show a number of elements from my life through a number of pieces that I created over the past few years and that I am now combining into one choreography. I think people will be able to identify with the episodes from life. It is about happy moments but also more difficult periods. The result is a fifteen-minute piece in three stages and in three different worlds.

"Through hip hop, I want to create a show that can tell a story with various emotions, the way contemporary dance does. I also see it as my responsibility to teach people who don't really know hip hop how to understand and interpret it. Hip hop is rap, good music with a deep bass and a clear message, but first and foremost it is an entire culture that allowed me to find my way. I didn't like school and I had few other passions. Hip hop helped me to do something with my life. I want to show young artists that it is possible to be a hip hop artist in Belgium, and who knows, perhaps one day I will be able to provide a platform for upcoming hip-hop artists to find their way in the industry.”

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