Dallas — Booming drums echoed through the halls of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters on Friday night. Merriment and celebration coated the air upon stepping into the building. Excited to participate in the Fourteenth Annual Festival of Black Dance, community members welcomed KanKouran West African Dance Company and Atlanta Dance Connection to the stage.
Based in Washington, D.C., KanKouran West African Dance Company began the celebration with Djinafoli. Standing in a line across the middle of the stage, five drummers immediately commanded attention with their bold rhythm. Six dancers, three men and three women, gradually joined their accompaniment with small steps matching the musical pulse. Their light yet deliberate steps created a visual representation of the musicians’ expression and unified the dancers and drummers. The movers built a grounded relationship with the floor by keeping their knees bent and using the weight of their steps to propel them into the next jump, walk, or stomp. Clothed in gold, white, and green, the performers radiated excitement in their smiling faces and joyful shouts.
Set to the music of Steve Reich, Atlanta Dance Connection’s Dark Angels excerpt took on a more contemporary approach. A kneeling dancer dove forward with swimming arms and pushed off the ground with a surge of force that formed the dramatic tone throughout the piece. Five other dancers wove around the space by tilting their heads backwards, falling off balance, and running into new formations. Striking angular legs cut across the stage while the dancers jutted their upper bodies into sharp isolations.
The KanKouran West African Dance Company drummers returned with Musical Interlude that encouraged audience participation. A slow build in tempo caused one male dancer to stomps vigorously to the accents of the drums. Although short, the piece did provide a break from the heaviness of the previous work and renewal in energy levels.
After intermission, Atlanta Dance Connection’s Torrance Smith performed Running Out of Time! His black attire and sharp steps recalled the dramatic tone of the company’s first piece. Smith’s swift turns, concise leaps, and chest isolations led him through this short solo.
KanKouran West African Dance Company continued to light up the stage with Marakadon. Now wearing bold red and gold traditional costumes, the dancers engaged with more intricate hand gestures in addition to their fast footwork from earlier pieces. A firm, yet bouncy beat burst from the drum line and filled the performers with gleeful energy. As the tempo swelled, the dancers became more frantic in their shaking hands, windmill arms, and stomping feet. The musical climax resulted in dancers laughing and interacting with each other by mimicking drum movements in both their hands and feet.
The biggest shift of the night occurred in Atlanta Dance Connection’s In the Midst of Chaos & Confusion, All We Need Is LOVE. Movers in pedestrian jeans, shirts, and sweaters twisted their hands and upper bodies to mirror the words from the spoken word poetry playing above them. Ideas of labels due to race, background, and image were portrayed in the dancers’ fisted hands, plunging rolls to the floor, and desperate reaches upward. The compelling poem was followed by a news story relaying the tragic events at Pulse nightclub in 2016. The combination of the heartbreaking audio and vigorous pushing and pulling of the dancers generated a somber tone. At times, however, the audio became overwhelming and overshadowed the actual movement. The third section transitioned into a more hopeful tone with the sounds of gospel music. Seven dancers reached heavenward as they jumped and lifted those who had hinged to the ground. Although the work held some technical problems, the passion from the dancers certainly resonated with the audience.
To close the show, KanKouran West African Dance Company’s Soli exploded into an exuberant beat as three male dancers kicked their feet and chugged into the rhythm. They incorporated high knee jumps and athletic kicks into their section to highlight the massive accents in music. The women added to the momentum by stepping buoyantly into center and presenting a lighter, faster foot pattern. After this back and forth between sides, the group came together and invited the viewers to join them onstage for a widespread dance party. Connecting audience and performers, the boisterous beat was the perfect ending to a spirited evening.