Dancing to the Diaspora Beat

Members of the Ballet Folklórico Cutumba from Cuba
Members of the Ballet Folklórico Cutumba from Cuba

It would be hard to name a more popular summer festival than DanceAfrica. Held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) every May for 34 years, it offers topflight dance, music, films, dance classes, children's activities and a super-popular outdoor bazaar, drawing thousands of people, not only from New York City but from all over the country and the world. A joyful celebration of the arts of Africa and the Diaspora, it owes its creation and robust personality to artistic director and founder Chuck Davis, who established the Chuck Davis Dance Co. in New York in 1968 and later the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham, N.C.


"The festival is all about community," Davis told The Root. "We want to entertain, educate, celebrate and honor the ancestors. I love it when people return year after year and we hug and scream and jump with excitement in just being together. That's our spirit."

The celebration starts off with a free, opening ceremony at Weeksville Heritage Center today. The main dance performances will take place at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House May 27-30. The traditional libation rite is led by the Council of Elders, who honor those who have passed on to the ancestral grounds. From there, it travels to Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza, where the community welcomes the Santiago de Cuba-based Ballet Folklórico Cutumba, this year's visiting company, with dances by students from BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble. The center, which includes three historic structures, is on the 19th-century site of the original village of Weeksville, a thriving African-American community.

Davis, one of the foremost teachers and choreographers of traditional African dance, established DanceAfrica in 1977 to introduce the public to a wide variety of companies and other achievements of the culture. "It worked," he says. "We have effectively spread the word. And we're not going to stop."

From eastern Cuba, they perform Haitian dances including the tajona, in which the choreography involves interlacing ribbons around a maypole, and they also re-create the rumba cycle, each with its distinctive steps and rhythms. There's a talk following the performance, during which Davis; Idalberto Banderas, artistic director of Cutumba; and Dr. Marta Moreno Vega of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute will discuss Afro-Cuban music and dance and its relevance to Cuban culture.

At DanceAfrica, you always feel the music, with regulars Bambara Drum and Dance Ensemble and the BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble ready to set the stage of the BAM stage on fire. To help matters, Philadelphia-based Kùlú Mèlé African Dance and Drum Ensemble makes its third appearance at the festival. Founded in 1969 by Robert Crowder and led by artistic director Dorothy Wilkie for more than 20 years, the company draws upon music and dance from Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Nigeria, Guinea, Ghana and the Senegambia region, as well as African-American vernacular tradition. "We don't leave anything out," says Wilkie. "We keep tradition alive by showing how it relates to other styles, like social dancing and hip-hop."

No one should miss the vibrant DanceAfrica Bazaar, which includes nearly 300 local and international vendors, selling everything from masks to dresses, jewelry to handbags and food from Africa, the Caribbean and African-American cultures. For kids, the Children's Village now offers face painting and crafts. "The vendors only sell the best cultural merchandise," says Dewonnie Frederick, the marketplace organizer. "I suggest you wear comfortable shoes, if you're going to take it all in. And don't forget some extra cash. You want to stroll around, picking up food and drinks to keep you going. There's a lot of see."


Davis offers some final advice as well. "Come and find out that this is a place for love and respect," he says. "Be entertained and give thanks."

Though DanceAfrica is primarily about dance, there's also FilmAfrica, a BAMcinématek film series at BAM Rose Cinemas; Cuban social dancing; a late-night dance partyl and master classes for families and adults.


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.