DanceAfrica DC is a week long celebration of the African Diaspora in Spirit, through Dance, Art, Music and Culture. It takes place every year in the Washington, DC Brookland area. This year’s celebration was May 28 – June 2. I invite you to check out DanceAfrica DC next year.
As you drive or walk down 8th St NE you’re instantly drawn to the sound of music from the four corners of the African continent richly rooted there and blossoming on the block of Dance Place’s theater. A long strip of tents hold irresistible items for sale capturing your attention, delicious food trucks with savory bites and a mass of loving people enjoying the reunion of the returning festival.
It’s truly magical to watch a person get pulled into a moment of gazing at a simple trinket or fabric that inspires them– awakening an African sensibility or story waiting to be told. A family affair, there at the festival little ones are dressed in their African attire toddling around freely taken into the atmosphere of family and fun. As it is in Africa, their parents don’t need to be nearby because everyone looks out for each other, a whole tribe of people that know you by name or by face can equally show you love, correct you and keep you safe.
On Sunday, June 2nd, the festival celebrated 32 years of presence within the African Dance Community at Dance Place.
As a first timer, I got a taste of it all: the stage, the community, the education and the fun.
Griot Mama Sylvia Soumah of Coyaba Dance Theater, who addresses the crowd in a beautiful adornment of African design, color, sequin and beads with her long braid hair down, welcomes the audience to be free, have fun and dance along with the performers onstage. The performances ceremoniously commence with the remembrance ritual in a gesture that honors that Ancestors. It is custom to acknowledge those who came before us by pouring a libation, through intergenerational teaching on how to carry on such traditions that are sewn into the fabric of African culture today. A Libation pour is performed while calling out the names of Elders, Loved One’s, Teachers, Family Members and Friend who have passed on– having left this earth and bequeathed the traditions that remain apart of the African make-up today.
Midday performances, led by Mama Sylvia Soumah includes outstanding African dance companies, masterclass series, free outdoor performances and activities, and its signature African Marketplace featuring: local vendors, a gallery of some of Africa’s texture, color and uniquely pattern jewelry, clothing, handbags, accessories and more. DanceAfrica DC is known to inspire, invigorate, educate, and entertain and on that day…..it did.
Honoring and Acknowledgement can also be done by way of ritual, ceremony, a building of altar and/or of course in a dance. On this day, audience members took part in all of these above, witnessing the various aspects of reverence beginning with the pouring of water: a cleanser, a purifier a re-birthing element of nature. As the keepers of these traditions, Mama Makini, squatted down, poured, calling out the names chiming” MADDASEE, MADDASEE” meaning “Thank You”–the sound of their names echo the impact of their legacy. It hit us there in the audience, for if anyone thought that they’d come to see and be entertained they now realized the magnitude of the moment which hushed us, blessed us and caused us to breathe being present in the moment.
The first act opened with a chorus of singing African/Black Young Women chiming in passionate song of reconciliation and love as they offer praise carrying baskets and white candles to an altar placed in the downstage. The piece evolved into both singing and dancing. They flail their arms like wings, the fingertips bending the wind in precision with their hearts opening completely to us. Simply Breathtaking.
The soft expression on the dancers faces tell us that “all was at peace.” All female, it was a statement of pure love and maturity….acceptance for the things to come. African dance does that. It tells a story through movement and gesture so vividly that words aren’t even needed.
The second indoor performance was by Ni Dembaya, Journey to Legacy, consisting of a high energy fanfare of dancers ushering in the celebration and acknowledgement of life and a new relationship. The instrumentals: 3 Djembe drums and 2 drums on Sticks took us to the Motherland.
The entire choreography was full of fire and energy, but the sound really took over. Mid-dance, a Drum Call featured the main drummers, their style, unique sound and offering to the audience. One drummer, dressed in traditional attire while wearing an 80’s style cap paid homage to the Elders seated nearby with his hand talk. A gentleman who could not simply contain his mojo danced in response to the rhythmic call that was being put out. He twirled, kicked and beat his feet to the sounds that made him feel alive.
The second drummer, Kofi Agyei is well anticipated. He sparks excitement and applause from the audience with his “mean business” stance and impressive attack in his solo. He dances, swings his hips, shuffles his feet sideways and dishing out energy when he comes down to meet the twirling gentleman who obviously was still in the Spirit. The last drummer, was also an Elder. He made his drum sound– talk to us in a simple yet compelling performance too.
The Sankofa Dance Theater premiered a new work about healing, growth and patience. Together four jubilant dancers, recreated a story of everyday life carrying a basket for sewing seeds and gathering a harvest in this original dance work. Dance Place has a remarkable set where hues of color embellish their African patterned costumes array of colors, shapes and fixations.
During intermission, audience members are invited to stay active and a participate in the surrounding activities: I had a chance to slip outside of the theater and appreciate the sounds of a Cuban band exciting the crowd. Immediately, I recalled the Black Latino connection within the scope of Black African Disapora or Pan African culture. We are BLACK YES. Therefore, we have the power to move identity beyond the waters of forced labor and the slave trade. Instead of mourning the losses in sorrow and anger, the Festival celebrates, recognizes and inserts the beauty of our heritage and that which would make our Ancestors proud.
Speaking of Ancestors, a memorial of the most notable and prolific figures of African Dance in the DC dance scene sits in the entryway adorned with pictures, flowers, fruit, note cards, candles and accessories that honors their name and contribution. The Mamas (Mother) and Babas (Father) of our time including in the famous Baba Chuck Davis, a teacher, father and friend to many who gave the children purpose and a place to call home in dance where otherwise they would not have.
The midday show ends with performances by Tarabuti Youth Association, a tribute to the South African coal miners and the Apartheid struggle in a Gumbe Boot Dance. As well as an outdoor tribute and closing performance by Coyaba Dance Theater as they conclude the year with young children to high school performing together.
The Americans/African American, the African, the Latino or Latina, the Pan African, and Caribbean cultures…. is a diametric blend of history. It is depicted on the faces, in the attire and energy of the people there at the DanceAfrica DC festival! The young adults of the community are beginning to step up. Teaching the young people, articulating the traditions from throughout the years, passing them on and leading by example. The children give themselves over to the dance, relinquishing control while maintaining the integrity of movement technique. The Festival has proven to be a sacred learning ground and a joy to all who are a part of it.
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