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Monday, April 24, 2017

Faces in DanceAfrica

Janice Hart-Brathwaite, 2nd from left, with Charles Moore Dance Theater.
Photo courtesy of the artist 
By David Hsieh

In February 1976, dancer/choreographer Charles Davis held three performances in the Lepercq Space in today’s Peter Jay Sharp Building at BAM. He constructed an African village to honor the ancestry of African-Americans. From there, a tradition and institution grew steadily. This year the DanceAfrica Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary (May 26—29). It is not only BAM’s longest running program, but also has wide-ranging elements for everyone—performances (including for students during schooltime), classes, a bazaar, films, community events, scholarships, and a Memorial Room. All contribute to spread Baba Chuck’s, and current Artistic Director Abdel R. Salaam’s, enduring central messages: love, respect, and tradition. Here are stories from a few people whose lives have been touched by DanceAfrica.


William Mathews, “Baba Bill”
Council of Elders

I met my future wife Mama Lynette [White] in 1981 and she invited me to an African dance class taught by Chuck. After a while sitting on the side, Chuck asked me to get up and dance with them. I was not a dancer and knew nothing about African dance. But his presence was so illuminating and his personality so inviting that I did as he said. After that, he said I was to come back next week, which I did. Some time after that, Lynette told me I was going to be on this “Council of Elders.” Since I was courting her, I did as told. That’s how I became involved with DanceAfrica. I remember asking Chuck once why he wanted me to be a member. He said, “Anyone that can make my premier dancer smile and look so happy is part of my family.” The Council of Elders is an important part of the festival. We instill the sense of respect for tradition, culture, and elders in all participants. I oversee arranging the Memorial Room and have set up two mentorship programs (Crowns and Seeds) at Bed-Stuy Restoration. Chuck really makes you want to participate. He makes you feel loved, like you’re in a family. I call it the magic of Chuck.

BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble, 2016.
Photo: Richard Termine
Karen Thornton Daniels
Artistic director of BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble, 2002—2016

I was taking classes with Baba Chuck and his company in 1977 when he told us about this African dance performance at BAM. The show was full of pageantry and became a tradition. We would take classes with him and see DanceAfrica every year. Even as a teen when my parents didn’t want me to trek all the way to Harlem (we lived in Bed–Stuy), I kept going and had my friends cover for me! Chuck was a very rigorous teacher. He wouldn’t allow any excuses. And he took a shining to me and was determined to push me ahead. I was in Abdel R. Salaam’s [who succeeded Davis as the artistic director of DanceAfrica] company from 1985—95. Then I joined Baba Chuck’s African American Dance Ensemble. Also in 1995, I was asked to teach at Restoration and later I served as artistic director of its dance company, from which the dancers were chosen to participate in the annual DanceAfrica Festival. Dance has given me a life I never dreamed of. It took me all over the world. I want to give it back to my students. I want to teach them to be global citizens.


Kwame Opare
First recipient of the Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship

I was only 14 when I joined Kankouran West African Dance Company and we were invited to perform in DanceAfrica. I was in awe seeing so much great dance and diverse styles. As a young person, that really showed me a level to aspire to. DanceAfrica gives us an opportunity to display our craft on a stage with great visibility and prestige. I have the utmost respect for Baba Chuck, BAM, and all the artists for keeping this tradition alive and urging us forward. So when I received this fellowship, I was so honored that I was recognized by a community that I have been looking up to since I was young.


Shatavia Greene
First recipient of the Scripps Scholarship

I was a theater major in the City College of New York. A teacher told me about the scholarship so I applied and got it. College is expensive: transportation, books, clothes. The scholarship definitely helped pay some of it. I also saw a DanceAfrica show that year, which I have never seen before. It was a great experience and made me want to dance!


Janice Hart-Braithwaite
Dancer, Charles Moore Dance Company (1978)

I was still in college when I took a class with Charles Moore in 1975, and he invited me to join his company. Then in 1978, the company was invited to DanceAfrica. It was us, Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble, Dinizulu and His Dancers, and the International Afrikan-American Ballet. I was ecstatic! I majored in modern dance, so before Charles took me on, I didn’t have a lot of contact with African dance. For the first 10 years, we danced in the festival many times. After that I kept going as a viewer. We were also invited for the 35th anniversary reunion. I have seen how Chuck grew and expanded it to include the different styles of African dance. I was in tears when I saw the Peruvian company in 2006, Perú Negro—Who’d known! Last year Abdel incorporated an environmental message in a very artistic way. I loved the children’s dance [Restoration]. It’s good to have this tradition passed on.

DanceAfrica 2017 comes to BAM May 26—29. Over on Facebook, be sure to join the DanceAfrica 40 at BAM group to share memories and photos with other members of the DanceAfrica community.

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.

2 comments:

  1. The photo brings back so many good memories of performing in DanceAfrica that first year 1978, and several years thereafter with the Charles Moore Dance Theater. The bringing together of different companies to celebrate African Dance was unlike any performance experience I'd ever had. The photo was taken on the roof and I remember the good time we had there, and in the theater during rehearsals, and actual performances. Looking forward to this year's festivities.

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  2. Wow!! Wonderful seeing my Charles Moore Dance Family. I remember you Ramona and I see Terry in the photo (I believe). I saw the reunion dance at BAM 5 years ago. It was
    Beautiful.

    I took classes with Baba Chuck and his wife for many years in the late 70's 78,79. Classes were held in the basement of the big Church on St Oxford or Portland. I loved moving across those floors perfecting our steps to the energetic beat of live drummers every Saturday morning. Brings back so many exhilarating memories.

    I was at the first Dance Africa and it was so exciting to see the dancers that studied with Baba Chuck and all the other talented African dance groups. I'm so glad Dance Africa sttod the test of time becoming BAM's longest running program. I love seeing the growth from it's very organic,free style gathering to the wordly professional production that it has grown into. I'm in attendance every year.

    Dancing with Chuck kept my love for dance burning. I'm still dancing! Now with Pure Onyx Movement a bellydance group of phenomenal Black Women and children of all ages. Keep an eye out for our annual performance in early December.


    #DanceAfrica4ever #dancer4ever #Ilovedance

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