Americans don’t believe that Africans, by sheer force of spirit, can make bullets bounce off their bare chests. But according to Victor Clottey, the Ghanaian-born, Chicago-based dancer and choreographer, such an event has happened many times in his native land.

“Foreigners call it voodoo,” he explains with a hint of distaste. “Back home we call it juju. Everybody has something that supports their spirit.”

Clottey’s spirit, which joyously overwhelms the uninitiated observer and would undoubtedly deflect a fleet of cruise missiles, is supported by a passionate devotion to freedom through discipline. And this spirit in turn funds his new work, Return to Salaga: The Homecoming, an original African dance-drama.

Return to Salaga tells the story of the Four Daughters of Salaga, who are captured by slave traders and transported to America, where their devotion to one another and to their homeland allows them to survive and eventually to escape. Set in the real Ghanaian town of Salaga, which Clottey sees as a metaphor for any place that people call home, the story is told solely through dance and music, and is infused with thousands of years of tradition.

“Most of our dances have some historical background,” explains Clottey, pointing to the precise gestures of his dancers. “In order to understand everything, you must know the historical background, the sociological background, the physiological background. Most gestures, you see, mean something.”

While using traditional Ghanaian dance in Salaga, Clottey also fuses Caribbean and modern jazz movements into his piece, as a way of demonstrating the solidarity that he finds in these widely different styles. Kinganga, a Ghanaian dance of homage and tribute, is thus juxtaposed with an original Afro-Caribbean jazz piece entitled Roots, which depicts the realities of slave life through simple, emblematic gestures.

“All human beings have to be free,” says Clottey in explaining the genesis of Salaga. “And that kind of freedom you can see in our dances. You have to have total freedom, mentally and physically, so that every part of the body can respond.”

Work on Salaga began last summer when Clottey and his assistant, Lillian Fleming, spent four weeks in Ghana, studying and documenting that country’s indigenous dance. Clottey, who helped found the Ghana National Dance Ensemble in the 60s, is something of a celebrity there. He was, Fleming acknowledges, the “perfect person” to show her the complexities of African dance. The experience helped Fleming to dispel many of her own Western preconceptions and misconceptions.

“The movements are not erotic,” she explains. “People are communicating. They are showing muscular prowess, expressing friendship, expressing communal connections, individualism, and love for the society as a whole.

“You really have to dance it to understand it,” she concludes.

Clottey returned to America with “a monument,” consisting of volumes of videotape and a revitalized ability to teach his native dances to those who would otherwise have no exposure to such creative forms.

“One of the things that comes through in Victor’s teaching,” explains Fleming, “is the ability to hear the music differently. Westerners listen to different parts of the music than Africans. Westerners dance to the melody; Africans dance to the beat.”

The most important part of African music for the dancer is the master drum, which will be played live in Salaga. The master drum, through subtle changes in rhythm, tells the dancers exactly what to do. “The drum speaks,” says Clottey. “It is a talking drum.”

Despite the overwhelming precision of African dance, something that, as Clottey points out, is easily overlooked by the uninitiated eye, he says that he must allow his dancers room for personal expression and virtuosity. “They have to be creative,” he explains, “to let the dance explode.”

This constant balance of precision and freedom forms the basis for Clottey’s philosophy of dance. The discipline that he expects of his dancers can only be achieved through total relaxation. A dancer cannot force a dance out of him- or herself, but must instead relax into it. But relaxation for Clottey is not passive. It is an active method for finding one’s center and one’s voice.

“You could be driving and a cop happens to stop you,” he explains allegorically. “If you panic, you lose your mind, you talk rubbish. But if you relax, you can simply tell him, ‘Hey, man, get going.’

“When you’re relaxed, everything falls into place,” he concludes.

Clottey has devoted much of his life to the study of dance and has visited dance institutions all over the world. But the farther he travels, the more he finds a unity pervading all dance forms.

“I saw the Russian ballet,” he begins. “And you know, Russian movements are equivalent to African. All the low movement, the acrobatics, are equivalent to what our fisher folks have been doing back home. But those fisher folks have no formal training.”

As the title suggests, Return to Salaga has been a way for Clottey to reexamine his heritage and to express the love of freedom and community that he finds in Ghanaian culture as well as in the Afro-American experience.

“Love and devotion and unity have to prevail,” he says with unconcealed passion, “so that all of us can live together. We have to look back to yesterday to assess our lives so we can rearrange and finally unite.”

It’s a tall order for a dance concert. But after all, he’s been working on this piece “for thousands of years.”

The Victor Clottey African Dance Ensemble will present Return to Salaga: The Homecoming on Saturday, December 19, at 7:30 PM and Sunday, December 20, at 4 PM at the Francis W. Parker School auditorium, 330 W. Webster. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. 975-6103.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.