DanceAfrica, the nation’s largest annual celebration of African Diasporic dance, music and culture, returns LIVE to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House after having been moved online for the last couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, while the celebration’s continued online presence enjoyed a massive international viewership, Artistic Director Abdel R. Salaam says there is nothing like the thrill of seeing this celebration in-person as he announced upcoming performances at BAM on Friday, May 27 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 28 at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, May 29 at 3 p.m.; Monday, May 30 at 3 p.m..
This year, Salaam says, under the banner DanceAfrica 2022: HOMEGROWN, dancers, drummers, and musicians from five “homegrown companies take the stage with programs featuring their vision of traditional African dances and music forms of Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, and the Caribbean, supported by Arkestra Africa.” The impressive line-up includes the Brooklyn-based Asase Yaa African American Dance Theater, which last brought its explosive African dance and drum performances to DanceAfrica in 2017, the Bronx-based Bambara Drum and Dance Ensemble bringing its high-octane performance to the festival for the sixth time, along with Washington, D.C.’s critically acclaimed percussion orchestra and dance ensemble Farafina Kan, which shares the history and spirit of traditional West African drumming and dancing, blended with contemporary music. Rounding out this impressive roster are two other New York City-based companies, Harambe Dance Company, whose movement, modern dance forms, and live percussion reflect the majesty of the African diaspora, and the LaRocque Bey School of Dance, the oldest African dance school in the U.S., which will showcase its dynamic fusion of dance forms. Of course, there will also be performances by DanceAfrica’s Spirit Walkers and the BAM RestorationArt Dance Youth Ensemble, celebrating their 25th anniversary as an integral component of the Festival.
Baba Abdel Salaam’s history with this BAM-hosted, enduring traditional, cultural celebration dates back to Day One in 1977 when Baba Chuck Davis conceived of this iconic celebration of the culture of the African diaspora. Describing the time when DanceAfrica was launched, Salaam recalls a period of tremendous energy and sense of empowerment. In 1977, artists, activists and intellectuals from all over the U.S. and, indeed, the world, descended on the African continent to attend the International Festival of Black and African Arts in Lagos, Nigeria called FESTAC dedicated to honoring their “roots” and repairing the damage done by the transatlantic slave trade. “That year,” Salaam says, “the Chuck Davis Dance Company was among those artists who came together to celebrate the gifts of dance, music, theater, poetry, and more our people have given to the world. It was a time of self-empowerment and a moment of exaltation.”
It was also an effort to unify African people along the diaspora in a way that had not been done before and in that spirit, when the Chuck Davis company returned, Davis and his then-manager the late Bess Pruitt approached BAM Director Harvey Lichtenstein with a suggestion. BAM had successfully presented the Chuck Davis Dance Company, now Davis suggested BAM present a group of his “brother and sister companies that do the same thing we do but do it in a different way” under an umbrella to be called DanceAfrica. Lichtenstein agreed and, Salaam says, in 1978 you have the first time that BAM worked with Davis to lift up the spirit of the African Americans’ celebration of African dance, music and rhythm.
Clearly it was an idea whose time had come as 1977 was also the year that the blockbuster TV series “Roots,” highlighting African American writer Alex Haley’s iconic journey in search of his own African heritage, struck a chord with millions. Salaam says, “So, you’ve got FESTAC, you’ve got “Roots” and also, that same year the Chuck Davis Dance Company appeared on a Richard Pryor NBC-TV special making it the first presentation of an African dance company on a major television network.” It was a perfect era in which to launch DanceAfrica’s first program featuring five African dance companies—the Charles Moore company, Arthur Hall from Philadelphia, Nana Dinizulu African Dancers and Drummers, the International Afrikan-American Dance Company, along with Davis’ own. Needless to say DanceAfrica was a tremendous success then and continues to be so 45 years later. While those initial years featured homegrown African dance companies, it wasn’t long before the roster included dynamic presentations by companies from the entire diaspora.
“Now,” Salaam says, “45 years later the DanceAfrica Festival’s appeal has become an exalted presentation of companies from around the world. More than 90 dance troupes from more than 15 nations have participated in this annual showcase, including companies from Ivory Coast, Congo, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zaire, Benin, Uganda, Ghana, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru, Zambia, Madagascar, Senegal, and the U.S. This year, after talking with many in our community, we decided it was time to take us back to the roots of DanceAfrica and the realization that we were a people united via a vast African diaspora and this is how African Americans celebrate and honor that, which is why we’re calling this year’s Festival, DanceAfrica 2022: HOMEGROWN.”
Of course, as many Festival devotees know, in addition to the thrilling performances, DanceAfrica includes a popular outdoor Bazaar with over 150 vendors offering crafts, food, and fashion, a film series at BAM Rose Cinemas, dance classes and panel discussions, including a Choreographer’s Conversation, and a dance party with live music, at BAMcafe. Salaam says that while the pandemic changed the nature of the Festival for a minute as it pivoted in 2020 to its first online DanceAfrica celebration attracting a record-breaking audience from some 23 countries, it’s good to be back live and in-person.