Dallas — Great performances sometimes leave you speechless. Not in the sense of having nothing to say, but rather the feeling of so many emotions and thoughts welling up, you don’t know where to begin. Perhaps it’s just best that I tell everyone to carve the dates for next year’s DanceAfrica into your calendars now and experience it for yourself, rather than a feeble attempt to contain it with words on a screen.
But here goes.
The vibrant, exuberant DanceAfrica celebration presented by Dallas Black Dance Theatre (under the helm of Bridget L. Moore) at the Moody Performance Hall in Dallas carried a more somber tone than that of past events, but that difference only brought out more positive overarching themes that a performance like this illuminates.
Dr. Charles “Baba Chuck” Davis founded DanceAfrica in New York in 1977, and it has since spread to various cities across the country. This is DBDT’ 12th year to hold the event, but without Baba Chuck’s physical presence. His death this year hit the dance community hard, as evidenced by the moving tributes to his life throughout the performance. His mantra of “peace, love, and respect for everyone” was not just proclaimed at all events, he truly lived it.
With every event he led, his calm, authoritative voice and those long fingers that seemed to reach out and touch the hearts of all in attendance created an aura of mystery and reverence, like you were transported to another world. A sense of calm and serenity pervaded, convincing the most skeptic person that inner peace (and therefore community peace) is in fact possible.
The evening was not the same without his imposing, yet magical 6’6” form commanding the stage at the Moody, but DBDT’s Associate Artistic Director Melissa Young and a passionate Baba Leo Hassan kept alive his call-and-response “AGO! AME!”
We are always listening, Baba Chuck.
Each performance honors the Council of Elders, but this year, the nine distinguished women honored him. Placing tokens such as a scarf, candles, a staff, and a picture on an illuminated table, they danced and moved to the beats provided by members of the Bandan Koro ensemble directed by Tony Browne. Moving their hands from the floor, to the heart, to the sky, they each showed the utmost respect.
Emotional tributes by Vicki Meek and Lily Weiss further educated audience members on his impact. A reading of the names of those recently passed only heightened the sadness, as we hear and see on the screen not only Baba Chuck’s name, but a remembrance of those who lost their lives to the recent hurricanes and tragedy in Las Vegas.
But let’s move on to things that make this event so uplifting.
DanceAfrica is an experience on a different level than anything else performed in the concert hall. Percussionists play with such a fiery passion that the sounds of their instruments reach inside your soul, compelling you to act, to move. A glance around the performance hall at any moment when the drums were going revealed heads bobbing or tilting side to side, shoulders pulsing, toes tapping, and hips subtly shifting in seats.
An invitation to participate lets the audience members know that they are valued in this experience. As musicians and dancers enter the hall from the back doors, parading down the steps and onto the stage, they encourage patrons to clap and call out. And it doesn’t end when the house lights go up at the end of the stage performance, as the party continues in the lobby.
Visually, there’s so much to take in. To be sure, brilliant reds, greens, and yellows enhance the aesthetic, but it’s the sheer physicality of the dancers, the wild abandon with which they move that brings the most joy. Moore’s African Strings, danced by Lailah Duke and Claude Alexander III. displayed a graceful power with large arm gestures, flicks of the hand, and a stunning flow of bodies.
Dancers from Dallas Black Dance Academy and Booker T. Washington High School moved with confidence and delight. Members of DBDT: Encore! delivered boundless energy with Treasured Reflections, and members of DBDT sang and danced without hesitancy.
The second act gave the musicians and dancers of Bandan Koro African Drum and Dance Ensemble a chance to shine. After a long first half, a continuation of fervent drumming and dancing had the potential to grow wearisome, but in the capable hands of the African drumming and dance ensemble, that didn’t happen. They were like a shot of espresso towards the end of a packed evening. With music and dance honoring ancestors, women, and Baba Chuck himself, the group delivered a non-stop, exhilarating show of culture, energy, and vigor.
But as thrilling as the performance was, the more touching moments came with audience reactions. Smiles and laughter abounded, and patrons were still dancing as they filed out of the auditorium to join the artists in the lobby.
It also evoked a sense of nostalgia for some. A young woman sitting next to me who spent the first nine years of her life in Nigeria was moved to tears multiple times, as elements of the evening triggered memories from her village she thought were long passed.
Above all, an event like this is a reminder. Although it highlights the dance and music of one section of the world, it reveals that each one of us, at the core, is a human being born to move and celebrate in community.