Lapas bring flair to African dance

You know that sarong you wore to the beach last summer? Its design was inspired by a “lapa,” a piece of fabric worn like a skirt in Africa as casual wear and for dance ceremonies.

You know that sarong you wore to the beach last summer? Its design was inspired by a “lapa,” a piece of fabric worn like a skirt in Africa as casual wear and for dance ceremonies.

While we see the lapa’s offspring, the sarong, most often by the surf and sand, students in the African I Umfundalai Technique dance class wear lapas to keep with African dance tradition.

Lapa is a “Pidgin” English word, or a mix of words from two languages, that translates to “lap,” or a piece of cloth that covers the lap. One to two yards in length, lapas, also called “wrappas,” are worn around the waist and hips.

“It’s symbolic of modesty,” dance instructor Kariamu Welsh said. “A female student is considered undressed if she’s not wearing a lapa.”

Welsh, who visits Africa at least once a year, founded the “Umfundalai” technique, a blend of key dance movements from all over the African continent that is the foundation of the African I dance class. Known as “Mama Kariamu” to her students, Welsh has taught the African dance course – and promoted the tradition of wearing lapas to keep African dance tradition – for the past 21 years.

Sarongs are most commonly worn over skin-revealing bathing suits and bikinis for a stylish alternative to shorts and T-shirt cover-ups, but in Africa lapas are worn by women for more practical reasons. To carry their babies with them, women will wrap two lapas around their waists, using one as cover and the other to hold the baby to their body.

“For women with children, not only is [the lapa] pretty but it’s functional,” Welsh said. To keep with tradition, students tie their lapas on the left side of their waist, but are allowed to experiment with the design, fabric, details and folding of their lapa.

“They’re girls and they want to be as cute as possible,” she said. Welsh bought her lapa, which was made from pieces of different fabrics, in Ghana, West Africa, during a trip last December.

“This has no rhyme or design, and that’s why I like it,” she said.

In a recent class, female students wore lapas with Bob Marley, beach, floral and tie-dye-themed designs. Instead of buying a factory-made lapa, freshman Ali Dotti used an everyday bed sheet as her lapa. She folds the purple and green sheet in half, positions it on her waist and ties the two ends at her back.

“I’m not used to dancing in one; it’s definitely different – it gives it almost a feel,” Dotti said.

In Africa, people dance on special occasions, such as a birth, marriage or holiday. Lapas for dance performances are typically dressier than everyday lapas, which are usually of simple design and made of cotton, Welsh said.

“It may have some sort of trimming,” she said. “They can be lace, they can be silk … they can be your finest fabrics and design.” The class’ two male students wear loose fitting pants called “shokatoes” or “dabas” that, like lapas, keep with African dance tradition and give the dancer freedom to move with ease.

“It doesn’t have to fit exactly – it’s a one size fits all,” Welsh said of the lapa. “In African dances all bodies are accepted. In regard to the size, it makes them feel more comfortable about themselves. It gives them a sense of protection.”

So girls, next time you wear a sarong, feel free to bust a move – you’re clad with enough comfort and style to hit the dance floor or, at the very least, the beach.

Sammy Davis can be reached at

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