There,s more to a DanceAfrica event than dance. While swirling costumes, fleet footwork, and irresistible rhythms are certainly central to the show, as founder Chuck Davis points out, it's also meant to be an honoring of ancestors, a gathering of community, a chance for the audience to get involved.
"It's more than just a sitting in your seat type of show," says Davis. "This is the African tradition. We want to touch that part of you that is just raring to set your feet tapping."
Davis created the first DanceAfrica, a mixed program of African dance and music, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1977. The event's combination of performance, festival, ceremony and celebration caught on, and it has become a staple of the BAM season. The event has since spread to Chicago, Washington, D.C., Hartford, Dallas, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Miami, held annually in some places for more than 20 years to standing-room only crowds. Atlanta is currently preparing to host its first DanceAfrica as part of the National Black Arts Festival.
"Not only are we celebrating dance born on the continent," says Davis, "but we're also celebrating the fact that we have artists and dance companies here that are maintaining and carrying on the culture as best they can on these shores. We have so many different sources to draw upon. Every aspect of culture and rhythm is found on Africa because Africa is the beginning of life."
A DanceAfrica event always begins with a celebration of the elders, a pouring of libations to honor the ancestors, followed by a processional. "We're standing on the shoulders of so many people who have been responsible for keeping the culture alive," says Davis. "Their hard work is not to be forgotten. We want as many elders as possible to come so they can be saluted and honored each time."
DanceAfrica Atlanta will feature the moves of South African contemporary dancer and choreographer Vincent Mantsoe; traditional South African boot dancing from Lesol's Dance Project; chanting and polyrhythmic works inspired by Mali, the Ivory Coast, South Africa and Guinea by Atlanta's own Giwayen Mata; and the sounds of Ba Cissoko, master of the traditional West African stringed lute known as the kora.
The DanceAfrica events represent the culmination of a lifetime spent learning and educating about African dance for Davis, who, with his company the Chuck Davis African-American Dance Ensemble, played a major role in bringing African forms to the forefront of the 20th-century American dance scene.
"Our mantra has always been 'Peace, love and respect for everybody,'" says Davis. "I'm just happy to be in Atlanta as a part of the National Black Arts Festival. We want people to come out and enjoy the positive energy. You can bring negative energy with you, but the minute you walk through the door, it's changed to positive. The minute those rhythms begin, you are connecting to your neighbor. That is the purpose of our coming together."