The best-known African artist in Winnipeg can jump like a gazelle, whirl over to his band, grab a drum and never lose the soulful beat.
Over the past decade, Casimiro Nhussi, who arrived here from Mozambique in 1997, has established NAfro Dance Productions as Western Canada's only professional African-contemporary dance company.
He's also a singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer who earned a 2010 Western Canadian Music Award nomination for his debut CD, titled Makonde after his home tribe.
Nhussi, one of 19 children by nine wives of a famous dancer and sculptor, was a star in Mozambique, a nation on Africa's southeast coast. An electrifying performer, he rose to become artistic director of the country's National Song and Dance Company. He also trained as a contemporary dancer in New York.
After he married a Manitoba-trained engineer, Esther Argyle, they decided to raise their sons Ndidi and Katuma (now 21 and 18) in Winnipeg. When they first settled here, Nhussi, who's been compared to a leopard for his onstage grace, thought he would change his spots and become an anthropologist.
"But dancing and music just didn't let me go," says the gregarious choreographer, who speaks eight languages.
Nhussi, 47, has taught at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and the School of Contemporary Dancers, as well as throughout the province as an artist in the schools for the Manitoba Arts Council. Many children here, he says, view Africa as a backward continent defined by the hunger and poverty they see on commercials for charities. He wants them to know more.
NAfro's high-spirited, drum-powered shows at the Gas Station Arts Centre, usually every November and March, feature a large professional band, with Nhussi as magnetic host, dancer and player.
"He's got this fabulous energy that just draws people to him," says Brent Lott, artistic director of Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers.
Nhussi's core company of six dancers is all-female. He would love to showcase local male dancers, if he could find some.
Toronto and Montreal have three African-contemporary troupes between them. But from Lott's observation, Nhussi is one of the best African-contemporary choreographers in Canada, with a style that's a true fusion of ethnic and contemporary movement.
Nhussi says one of the biggest challenges of working with Canadians is to get them to loosen up, ditch their perfectionism and accept mistakes as part of the flow of life.
"Mess it up as much as you want!" he says. "Mess it up, clean it, and keep going."
He also can't understand why many Canadians dislike their own physiques. "Our body has all these curves and shapes. Why would you want to correct that part? It's your body! It's your self!"
Nhussi is still a big name in his home country of more than 22 million. When word reached Mozambique that he had released a CD in Canada, he was invited to give a performance of both music and dance there last August. It was a 650-person sellout, attended by many dignitaries.
That led the prime minister to ask him to perform in the opening ceremony of the All-Africa Games in September -- a televised show performed to a stadium of 9,000 people. "It was huge, a very amazing experience," Nhussi says.
There are only about eight households of Mozambicans in Winnipeg, Nhussi says, and they're all invited to his St. Vital home for a barbecue every June 25, Mozambique Independence Day. "My house is kind of the embassy," he says with a chuckle.
In 2012, the 10th-anniversary year for NAfro, his plans include working with the broader African community to form an amateur performance troupe and holding a three-day festival and symposium on African-contemporary dance in November.
To celebrate his 50th birthday in 2014, the man who once choreographed a work called Let Me Dance Before I'm Gone plans to do a full-scale solo show of storytelling, dance and music.
"I want to push myself," he says. "I'm still moving. I'm still dancing."
NAfro Dance's next production is Mapiko, March 2-4 at the Gas Station Arts Centre. See www.nafrodance.com