Dr. Charles ''Chuck'' Davis founded Dance Africa in Brooklyn in 1977, thereby creating the country's first festival solely devoted to the legacy of African dance. From that modest beginning at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it has blossomed into one of our largest celebrations of African and African-American culture, encompassing dance, music, art and film. It also features the lively outdoor Dance Africa Bazaar, where 300 vendors sell everything from dresses and sandals to baskets and drums.
On Memorial Day weekend, people come from far and wide to see what Dr. Davis has cooked up for them. This year, the agenda includes the Pamodzi Dance Troupe, from Zambia, two American companies, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Philadelphia's Illstyle & Peace Productions, plus the BAM/Restoration Dance/Africa Ensemble. The Root caught up with him between rehearsals for a quick chat:
The Root: How are you doing, Dr. Davis?
Chuck Davis: I'm blessed. I'm kicking and jumping. I'm ready.
TR: What is the secret of Dance Africa's success and longevity?
CD: People know they will see high-quality dance from the continent of Africa and from the Diaspora, authentically presented in a theatrical way. It's also a time of camaraderie and seeing old friends and meeting new ones. You see so many smiles. We open the summer and the West African parade on Labor Day closes it.
TR: Why is there so much focus on dance?
CD: Dance is life. Dance is spirit. It's in everything we do, and that's particularly true of African dance. Its movements don't just show up in street dance but also in ballet and Twyla Tharp on Broadway. This year, we brought Pamodzi Dance Troupe from Zambia because we've always been a bit heavy on West African dance. Now we can see what goes on there. We are edu-tainers. We want to teach and entertain you.
CD: Dance comes in so many guises. Dallas Black Dance Theatre offers contemporary dance about contemporary matters. Dramatic, exuberant, stimulating. Illstyle & Peace brings together hip-hop, jazz, ballet and break dance. Its dancers remind me of warriors. They are beyond incredible. Then you have the wonderful Restoration group, made up of over 200 kids.
TR: What does Dance Africa accomplish?
CD: People get involved in new things and find new ways of seeing. They might come for the dance but on the way to the theater, they pass a wonderful art exhibition, and they get interested in what the artist is doing. This year, we present Ramona Candy, who calls herself a choreographer on canvas. We also showcase African artists. Someone else comes for the films and hears music coming from the BAM Café. They see connections, and they want to learn more.
TR: How do you choose vendors for the Bazaar?
CD: They have to make quality products, and they can't be too expensive. Everyone wants to be in it. If they had to wait in line, they'd flatten each other just to be able to participate. About 30,000 people wandered through last year over the weekend. Five vendors completely sold out.
TR: What do you hope people get out of attending Dance Africa?
CD: I hope by looking at other cultures that they walk away more aware of themselves. We grow in spirit through the arts. When you familiarize yourself with other ways of being, you begin to see similarities as well as exciting differences. That should breed respect. Because we all have to come together. We are not alone on the planet. We're all responsible for each other. We grow through sharing. I want them to walk away full of enough wonderful experiences to keep them for a whole year.
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, "A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student."