Meet Iddrisu Saaka, Assistant Professor of Dance

Introducing Iddi

Iddi Saaka is a dancer, choreographer, drummer, dance teacher, and performer from Ghana. He earned his diploma at the University of Ghana, then came to the United States to attend UCLA for his Master’s in Fine Arts. In 2008, Iddi applied and gained the position of West African Dance professor at Wesleyan. In addition to teaching and performing, Iddi is involved in many campus activities that go beyond the stage. This year, he is a faculty fellow for the inaugural Wesleyan’s Embodying Antiracism Initiative (EAI) Think Tank and the newest member of the Global Engagement Minor’s advisory committee. We are pleased to feature part of his story here and excited to weave his perspective into the fabric of the Fries Center for Global Studies.

Diversity and Nuance in West African Dance

When Iddi first came to Wesleyan, there was already a long history of Ghanaian performance courses. The former West African dance and West African drumming professors hailed from the prestigious Ghana Dance Company. However, Iddi wanted to give students signing up for “West African Dance” a broader survey of dance from more than just Ghana. He traveled to Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso to learn different styles to bring back to Wesleyan, and show the diversity of dance from across West Africa.

Through teaching West African dance, Iddi hopes for his students to expand their knowledge of the world. He wants his students to understand nuances in culture, and become better global citizens. Iddi’s personal research expands his mission of using dance to react, inform, and learn. Last spring, he researched small-scale illegal mining in Ghana, which is causing problems by polluting local water bodies and destroying arable land where people grow their food. He brought his research back to campus and created a performance with his students to address social issues in Ghana happening today.


Using Performance to “Embody Antiracism”

Iddi performing in “Threshold Sites: Feast,” choreographed and directed by Nicole Stanton (2014)

Iddi is also a faculty fellow for Wesleyan’s Embodying Antiracism Initiative (EAI) Think Tank. A recent cohort meeting facilitated by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) provided training on how to center antiracism in individual and group work.

Iddi sees a difference in how intercultural issues are addressed domestically versus internationally, but he thinks everywhere needs to be more transparent and willing to open dialogues about race and racism. What he sees in Ghana is frustration and anger at how racism impacts the lives of Ghanaians. At Wesleyan, Iddi thinks the EAI Think Tank is a good place to start looking at racism in a nuanced way to see how to find solutions.

As part of the EAI fellowship, Iddi is creating a performance with community artists from Connecticut, a master drummer from Mali, and a 2021 Wesleyan alumni. The performance looks at how one’s place of origin can open doors and opportunities for some, but close doors and create barriers for others. Rehearsals and group work have fostered discussion on how race and racism are tied to place, and the creative process has allowed the group to embody antiracism in their performance.

Dance and Collaboration

Poster for “Shake,” Center for Arts Theater, Wesleyan University.

Iddi has been a part of many performances during his time at Wesleyan, and he highlighted two performances as examples of how to use dance to share intercultural community:

In 2014, Iddi performed in “Threshold Sites: Feast,” choreographed and directed by Wesleyan Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Nicole Stanton. The dance was performed by Iddi Saaka, Rachel Boggia, Deborah Goffe, Nicholas Owens, and Nicole Stanton, through Wesleyan’s Cross Street Dance Studio. “Threshold Sites: Feast” centered around how food brings people together to share common experiences. Stanton brought a lot of people from different backgrounds to collaborate.

In 2018, Iddi choreographed and performed “Shake” with Rachel Boggia, a 25-minute duet looking at friendship through different movement backgrounds. Boggia was the Associate Professor of Dance and Acting Director of Dance at Bates College and is now an Associate Professor of Dance and Chair of the Department of Dance at Connecticut College. “Shake” combined Boggia’s contemporary dance background with Iddi’s West African Dance background to see where the style and forms can meet and where they are apart.


Dance as an Intercultural Learning Tool

Students from the West African dance class performing in concert.

Wesleyan students and faculty can participate in dance productions through the many groups that audition and call for performers on campus. This year, Iddi’s dance class will be performing at the West African Drumming and Dance Concert on Sunday, December 4, 2022 at 8:00pm in the Crowell Concert Hall. Wesleyan offers dance classes focusing on different global styles including West African, Afro-Brazilian, Javanese, South Indian, and more.

“The dance in the classroom is not just about shaking their body. We are learning. We are reading about culture. Why were these dances created in the first place, and what function do they play in Ghanaian society? When do we create it? When the dances are done in Ghana today, do they still maintain the same meaning created originally, many many years ago?”

West African dance is not just about the past, but the present and future. Through learning dance and engaging with the history and social context behind dance styles, Iddi creates learning opportunities where students can “engage as active and positive players in a world that is forever in need of open and critical minds, healing, appreciation, and respect for cultural difference and diversity.”

– Megan Bauerle ’24,