Dallas — If you and your family are looking for something fun, loud and joyous to do this weekend, check out Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s 13th annual DanceAfrica performance at Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District. The show is part of the DanceAfrica festival, which also includes a marketplace at Annette Strauss Square filled with vendors, food and performances by local community artists.
What started in New York in 1977 has turned into the highly-anticipated season opener for DBDT year after year. DanceAfrica is the brainchild of Dr. Charles “Baba Chuck” Davis, whose passion for the African American culture and customs especially as it pertains to movement was always at the forefront of his conservations with audiences during these performances. Davis’ passing in May 2017 left a hole in the heart of the Dallas dance community and also has many patrons wondering what DanceAfrica is going to look like heading into the future.
This responsibility has been handed over to Nycole Ray who has been a part of DBDT’s DanceAfrica from the beginning. “I have had the pleasure of seeing it evolve through the years and I would say now, for me, it’s about keeping the tradition of DanceAfrica and the tradition of Baba Chuck Davis going and sharing that information with our dancers that come in and don’t know anything about DanceAfrica or anything about Baba Chuck Davis.”
In addition to coordinating DanceAfrica, Ray is also the artistic director of DBDT: Encore! and is currently celebrating her 21st season with the DBDT organization. She is also known throughout Dallas for her work with notable arts institutions, including the Dallas Holocaust Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Opera and Bruce Wood Dance (BWD).
Don’t miss Ray in BWD’s All Bruce performance in November where she will be reprising her role in Wood’s The Edge of My Life So Far (2010).
As far as her goals for DanceAfrica moving forward Ray says, “I’m trying to keep Baba Chuck’s vision alive the best that I can and then also having it to evolve with Dance Africa (America), which is the DanceAfrica that is held at BAM in Brooklyn, New York. So, we’re trying to make sure that each DanceAfrica in each city that hosts one has more than just the common thread of the name, DanceAfrica, but keeping in theme and tradition through each year together and collectively.”
This year audiences will also have to adjust to a new host. Someone who Ray says has been a part of DanceAfrica for many years and was a close friends with Davis. “Baba Chuck’s close dear friend Baba Leo Hassan will be taking on that role again this year in hosting DanceAfrica. And so we are going to start there and as we evolve in the future, because there is a new director for Dance Africa (BAM), Abdel R. Salaam, we might have him come in as a host in the future.”
What won’t change moving forward is the unique guest artists that get to grace the stage alongside DBDT and DBDT: Encore! every year. Past guests have included Dallas-based Bandan Koro African Drum and Dance Ensemble, Philadelphia-based Illstyle and Peace Productions and the all-female African dance, percussion and vocal ensemble from Atlanta, Giwayen Mata. DanceAfrica has also featured the youth ensembles from DBDT Academy and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I was surprised to learn that the student dancers weren’t originally a part of DanceAfrica, but were incorporated into the program later on.
“I want to say it was maybe our sixth season of DanceAfrica that Baba Chuck wanted to involve the youth and we’ve just been doing it ever since. Every year he was like ‘I want to see the children. People need to see the children.’ People need to see how it evolves from the youth companies into the pre-professional and into the professional. He also wanted people to see the elders. He wanted all generations to be represented and so we are holding on to that legacy.”
This year Ray is very excited to introduce Dallas audiences to the one-of-the-kind stepping company, Step Afrika! at DanceAfrica. Based in Washington, D.C., Step Afrika! is the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping, which blends percussive dance styles practiced by historically African-American fraternities and sororities, African traditional dance and influences from a variety of other dancing art forms.
“They pretty much show the history of South African dance,” Ray says about the company’s movement aesthetic. “So they represent Zulu dancing and then they evolve that into gumboot dance, which was what they did in the mines and part of communication of slapping rhythms on their boots because they couldn’t take drums into the mines.”
She adds, “I wanted to bring to Dallas something different for us and something we haven’t had the opportunity to see before. I wanted something a little bit different from the traditional West African dances that you will see from DBDT, DBDT: Encore!, and Allegro Performing Ensemble. I wanted something completely different from that so that people can see all the different types of cultures within the continent of Africa.”
And with DBDT’s announcement last week of the appointment of Melissa Young to artistic director, I couldn’t end my conversation with Ray without asking for her thoughts on that decision. “I think knowing DBDT so well and knowing how it operates and how it works is key. So, if you already know how certain things work then you know how to make them better and you know how to evolve them. That’s definitely the strongest advantage that we have in our success.”
She continues “Even after her years here Melissa is humble and she has no ego and she knows that it’s not about her. It’s about the evolution of the company and what we can do to make it better and who we could bring in for the dancers to make them better. To have them evolve. To make the overall look of the company evolve.”
Ray concludes, “And so, I think her main focus is going to be on the diversity of the types of choreographers that we have, but also keeping true to who we are as a company. We still want to surprise people by doing different things, but we also don’t want to go too far to the left where it’s like what happened to Dallas Black Dance Theatre.”
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com