“Please tell my people I’m gone”. Those were Emmanuel Lavelah’s last words to someone he recalls meeting at the port before his departure from Liberia to Sierra Leone in 1990. Liberia’s president Samuel Doe had recently been captured and the threads of the country’s precariously woven fabric were beginning to unravel. War was on the horizon.  Emmanuel had made up his mind to not be left behind by his older brothers who had been planning to leave their mother in his care. At the mere age of 18, Emmanuel arrived in a new land alone.  “Sometimes when anything is part of you, and you reach to a new area, you want to remember where you come from”.

Dance had been a part of Emmanuel’s life since he was young. He remembers fondly being into breakdance in the age of post-disco songs like “Ain’t Nothing Goin’ on But the Rent” by Gwen Guthrie. Breakdance led to a fascination and eventual exploration into the world of yoga. His flexibility and adaptability winning him a mentor who exposed him to other areas of artistic expression at the age of 11. Lavelah grew up in the Momboe Town Community heavily populated by the the Madingo ethnic group known he recalls, for ways they strongly upheld their culture.  He began doing yoga and displaying other flexible feats with the Momboe Town Cultural Troupe and then later traveled with the New kru Town Ballet under mentor Kun Nimely. They traveled together to Providence Island, Liberia and he recalls performing under the bridge there for audiences from near and far. At 14 Lavelah had a temporary departure for an African young teen’s true coming of age, leaving dance for football.

One day he was doing yoga in front of the house he lived in after leaving Liberia for Sierra Leone  and was recognized by someone who was impressed by his display and had connections to a cultural troupe. He not long after, joined the group called CONYAH in Freetown, Sierra Leone at the apprentice level. Then war befell Sierra Leone also in 1991. There was a ceasefire in Liberia and Emmanuel decided to return to Monrovia.  Upon his return he had heard about and reconnected with Ballet Zoe Banjay who were at the time based in Gbarnga, Nimba County, Liberia.  In 1992 he traveled with the group to Ivory Coast. Later in Ivory Coast, Lavelah would hear about the group B’Jolem Assemblee d’Artistes. He remembers going with 4 friends to audition and everyone being chosen except him.  He persevered and lived in the compound where the group practiced until he was one day discovered by the lead instructor who had noticed that Lavelah had not only picked up on the dances with great skill and style but was also keen to coach some of the other members of the group on the dances.

Lavelah would become one of the best artists in the group dancing and drumming. Only leaving in 1996 for Togo at the bequest  of his mentor  from Liberia to become Director of Training of Ballet Zoe Banjay who had now traveled for work in Togo.  In 1998, Lavelah’s life as a refugee continued on in Ghana where he became he was involved in the Liberian Cultural Center there participating in and choreographing dance pieces for everything to state functions to local performances when Liberian cultural exhibitions were requested.  It was through the Liberian Cultural Center, that SLAD Liberia was born. School of Liberian Art and Dance.  While in Budumburam Refugee Camp in Ghana, Lavelah and others realized there were NGOs & Volunteers who also took a keen interest in the beautiful Liberian cultural dances that they observed and were eager to learn it.  In 2007, Lavelah returned to Liberia with a desire to continue SLAD.  Now, 10 years later he is the lead instructor of regular Saturday classes at the Monrovia Health and Wellness Center. In a studio overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Lavelah and his team of dancers and drummers cheerily expose those interested to the traditional cultural dances of Liberia. His vision for SLAD is  to be eventually and fully recognized as a registered school where people can come to learn and experience traditional Liberian dance and music, while also connecting with public schools as a way to reinstill pride and knowledge of a culture most have been disconnected from due to years of instability and urban migration. Lavelah himself, a lifelong learner, whose journey throughout West Africa in itself is a testament to his perseverance and passion for preserving the culture, would also like to build a body of research on Liberian dance as an institution over the years.  

In the meantime, Lavelah continues to dance and share his craft with any one who is willing to rock their hips, jump in jubilee and dance to the energetic drum rhythms of the SLAD Liberia team.

Freda Koomson
Freda Koomson is a Healthcare Management Professional of Liberian & Ghanaian descent, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She enjoys writing, West African dance, food, cooking, travel, learning new languages, and engaging in civic activism.
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