BY MIA PENNEKAMP ’20
On a spring Thursday morning, Five College dance instructor Marilyn Sylla sat on a Smith College piano bench moments after finishing her Dance in the Community class, a course she spearheaded. Sylla is recognized across the Five Colleges for her warm smile, colorful wardrobe and passion for movement. After a 25-year career within the Five Colleges and a lifetime of working in the arts, Sylla is finishing her final semester teaching.
Born on an Air Force base in Selma, Alabama, Sylla is the oldest of six siblings — with two brothers and three sisters. Sylla’s early childhood was filled with travel and music, both of which have remained constants in her life. Her father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder flooded their home with artists such as The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.
Reflecting on her early interests, Sylla said, “I was a mover all throughout high school, cheerleading, pep squad — I was always interested in movement.” It was the ’70s when Sylla was first introduced to African dance. Speaking about her first African dance class in Colorado, Sylla recalled, “it just totally resonated with me. I felt the rhythm, the movements felt natural, and I decided I’d like to do this.” With her move to New York in 1983 came her more serious pursuit of African Dance.
“I was a paralegal in law firms for many years before becoming a professional artist,” Sylla said. “I grew up all over the world, and love to travel — my mom told me when I was in high school you know, 2,000 years ago, to learn to type. So I would go to a temp agency, and get a job wherever I was.” But her passion has long been in teaching. “All my life my plan was to be a teacher, but I thought it would be a more traditional classroom teacher,” said Sylla. It was while living and studying dance in New York that she received a request to sub for one of her teacher’s classes.
“I took 3 or 4 trains and a bus to go to Queens to go teach her African dance class. And I was hooked. I was hooked immediately,” Sylla remembered. After that class she said she thought, “I can do this, and I want to do this.” In 1987 Sylla moved to Boston as a newlywed, and began work at her first husband’s dance company Bamidele Dancers & Drummers, a group focused on arts and education work. It was at this point that Sylla feels she was really thrust into her dancing career.
“My first class in the Five Colleges was 1994,” Sylla said, referencing her guest artist visit to Mount Holyoke College. “Prior to that I was teaching at Greenfield Community College, and I was continuing to teach at Greenfield — so when I came to Mount Holyoke it was with the understanding it would be for a semester, and I’m still here.”
It is here in the Pioneer Valley and among the Five Colleges that Sylla has been able to spread her passion for movement and dance. She began teaching West African dance while continuing her community work in arts and education. Eventually, she created a course called Dance in the Community, where students from different dance backgrounds, or those who are simply interested in movement, come together to create interactive performances they share around the Valley,
“I want people to know you can have a career as a mover without being in one of the major companies,” said Sylla. “You can empower people in amazing ways, without being in a national dance company, and you can earn a living doing arts and education work.”
It was also during her time in the Valley that Sylla met her now-husband Sekou, at Smith’s John M. Greene Hall, where he was performing as a dancer, acrobat and musician with a national dance company from Guinea. “My first husband had died a year earlier,” Sylla said. Three weeks after meeting Sekou backstage she and her young daughter flew to Africa to visit him. “I brought him here on a master artists’ visa,” she said. In 1997, they were married. Sekou now teaches drumming at Mount Holyoke College, in addition to teaching alongside Sylla. They both plan to retire after this semester and move to Florida.
On finishing her final semester in the Five Colleges, Sylla said, “it is surreal. I have a lot of emotion, it’s exciting — to know that I’m at that point that I can really say that I have done the best I can. It’s time for another chapter and I’m excited, but it’s bittersweet. Because I’ve had just incredible students.” She said that opening people’s eyes and minds to another culture has been one of the most rewarding aspects of her career in teaching.
“For me it’s been a wonderful experience, and a blessing and an honor, really, to be able to say that I’ve been able to do something that I really love and enjoy for all these years in academia.”
Reflecting on her time working in beautiful studios with students, artists and emerging artists, she said, “I just feel full.”
Sylla would like to continue to dance after retirement. Her plan is tohead to sunny Florida, where she will hopefully settle into a community of people involved in the arts. “I am not retiring because I got to this point and I can leave,” Sylla said. “I’m retiring because I’d like to see young people coming in, teaching dance in the community.” She added, “I want to continue moving, so I’m not retiring to sit in a rocking chair and drink piña coladas — though I want some of that.” With regards to movement she said, “I think it keeps you young, like being in the Five Colleges around so many young people — it keeps you young in your heart and in your spirit.”
Sylla’s advice is to “find something you’re passionate about, and hold on to it.”