ArtsATL > Dance > Preview: DanceAfrica’s rich blend of traditional and modern makes it to Atlanta at last

Preview: DanceAfrica’s rich blend of traditional and modern makes it to Atlanta at last

Atlanta's Giwayen Mata skirts tradition with female drummers.
Atlanta's Giwayen Mata
Atlanta’s Giwayen Mata skirts tradition with female drummers.

Chuck Davis, or Baba Chuck as he’s known, greets visitors with a glorious, expansive hug, made all the more expansive by his size — 6 feet, 6 inches — and his voluminous African robe, or bubu, which sways as he moves. Then there are the long, graceful arms and the resonant baritone voice. He is both a presence and, at 76 years old, an elder in a tradition that truly honors its elders.

He is also the founder and artistic director of DanceAfrica, a celebration of African dance, music, tradition and culture that’s being presented in Atlanta for the first time June 14-16.

For 36 years, DanceAfrica has been a Memorial Day Weekend event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it has been presented in several other American cities. In 2011, a pared-down version came to Atlanta as part of the National Black Arts Festival, but now we get to see the full event.

The stage of Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel will be ablaze with the color, music and movement of South Africa, Senegal and other African nations. Each night will feature a slightly different mixed bill, with a couple of contemporary works thrown in. Many of the companies that will perform are based in Georgia; they will be joined Saturday night by the internationally renowned KanKouran West African Dance Company from Washington.

Davis has received numerous awards, including a Dance Magazine prize in 2004 for his work in promoting African dance in America. He describes DanceAfrica as “edutainment” and hopes audiences will gain a greater understanding of the culture and traditions of “the continent that gave birth to mankind.”

“There are so many black people in America today who cannot relate to the continent of Africa,” Davis laments. “That is their ignorance. Through the sharing of DanceAfrica, we look to where we came from.”

Honoring the elders is a DanceAfrica tradition and will be part of this weekend’s celebration. Edeliegba, a company of Atlanta-based elders, will perform both nights.

“The tradition in America is that older people are not receiving the respect they deserve,” Davis says as he sits on a too-small plastic chair next to the dance studios in Spelman College’s Read Hall. “Part of it is because the elders want to compete with youth rather than put themselves in a leadership position. I tell them, ‘Take off the spandex and let the young people shine. Guide them, don’t compete with them.’ ”

One of the artists Davis has guided is Omelika Kuumba, artistic director and co-founder of Giwayen Mata, an award-winning Atlanta-based ensemble that was featured on the TV series “America’s Got Talent” in 2008 and this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. The all-female company breaks with tradition in one significant way: it plays the drums. Historically, African drums were played exclusively by men.

It’s thanks to Kuumba that DanceAfrica Atlanta exists at all. And it has been years in the making. DanceAfrica events are autonomous and require that a host organization in each city take responsibility for funding and production. “It’s a major undertaking,” Kuumba says as she joins the conversation with Davis. “With funding the way it is today, it’s daunting, overwhelming.” But she’s doing it and, while stretched as tight as a drum the week before the event, is still smiling.

Kuumba is a child of the 1960s who was born and raised in Brooklyn. She grew up celebrating her African heritage and many times watched Baba Chuck host and perform at BAM’s DanceAfrica. “He looked 10 feet tall,” she remembers. “He has a physical presence that is phenomenal. Multiply that by the spirit he exudes, the passion he expresses and the joy. I was mesmerized.”

Kuumba studied African dance as a child and moved to Atlanta in 1977 to attend Spelman. She continued to study African dance off and on, both here and in Africa. In 1993, she became one of the founders of Giwayen Mata (which means “Elephant Women”), and when Davis visited Atlanta in 1998, she attended his dance workshops. It was the beginning of a rich relationship. Ten years later, her company joined the DanceAfrica family and has performed with it in Chicago, Dallas, Denver and New York.

Kuumba herself has become multi-faceted: company director, arts educator (at Spelman and Emory), writer, drummer, musical arranger, vocalist, choreographer, dancer and, now, DanceAfrica Atlanta organizer. She is planning a second DanceAfrica Atlanta in 2015 and hopes to make it a biennial event.

When asked about the form and technique of African dance, Davis and Kuumba each place their hands on their chests and beat out their heart rhythms: da-boom, da-boom, da-boom. “When we sloshed in that water in our mother’s belly,” Davis says, “the rhythm of the heart echoed. Dance is rhythm and life is dance. As the ancients said: dance is the mother of all art forms.”

African dance is birthed in community and daily life. But what Atlanta audiences will see this weekend is not, he emphasizes, ethnic.

“Ethnic means that everyone sitting in the audience knows and understands what they are seeing,” he explains. “It means being in the community, the land where it was born.” Once the dance leaves that community it becomes theater, even if the movements are authentic.

African dance companies do their best to honor the authenticity of whatever country they represent, whether it’s Nigeria, Senegal or South Africa. Many travel to Africa to do research. Onstage, they wear traditional attire, play drums, sing and execute steps native to a particular culture. Sometimes they perform dances incorporating contemporary dance or jazz, but they’re careful to provide program notes describing what’s what.

Davis has an interesting story to tell about African dance in America. After blowing dramatic kisses to a young dancer as she runs by, he gestures to the dance studio across the hall from us. He remembers taking dance classes there from Pearl Primus, the pioneering dancer and choreographer who in the 1940s and ‘50s performed some of the first African dance seen in America.

As Davis got to know African dance better, however, he noticed how cross-cultural her work was. “I said, wait a minute, listen to the lyrics, they are in Yoruba, the dance is from Liberia and the attire worn is from Senegal!” Primus had a huge influence on dance in America, but Davis vowed to take it one step further by keeping each country’s traditions as pure as possible. Others have followed suit, each honoring the tradition in their own way.

Davis looks at his watch. It’s time for rehearsal. Ten minutes later, he’s guiding 20 children through new African-inspired choreography. This will be “The Memorial,” the opening number on Friday. He demonstrates a phrase, stretching one arm to the sky. His large, lion-like frame moves with the lightness and grace of a gazelle.

Says Kuumba with a smile: “Baba Chuck is an elder, but he ain’t no old man.”

Here’s the lineup of DanceAfrica Atlanta:

Friday: Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble, Edeliegba Elders Dance Ensemble, Manga Dance Company, MZee Uhuru, Uhuru Dancers, Children of Atlanta and many others.

Saturday: Many of Friday night’s performers plus the KanKouran West African Dance Company, Soweto Street Beat and Giwayen Mata.

On Sunday, the event continues at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel with an African marketplace, a symposium featuring Davis and other educators and historians, and the Elephant Leaders Awards Gala which salutes Richard Long, cultural historian and former professor at Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta) and Emory Universities; Pearl Primus, dancer, choreographer and cultural anthropologist (both posthumously); KanKouran Artistic Director Assane Konte; and Davis himself. A lecture and demonstration for children will take place Thursday.

See a photo of Omelika Kuumba and read a touching quote from the Giwayen Mata co-founder here.

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