PREVIEW: Dance festival honors a trio of elders
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, May 25, 2012
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of DanceAfrica, DC, choreographer and teacher Carla Perlo has artistic and cultural elders on her mind.
“We wanted to do something special this year,” says Perlo, who introduced the annual festival to Washington and will be honoring three mainstays in the region’s African dance community. “Melvin Deal, Baba Chuck Davis and Assane Konte -- these men have dedicated their lives to promoting and teaching African dance and music for more than a quarter of a century . . .
and that’s a big deal.”
The three men will be honored with music, song and performances by local companies that have benefited from their contributions, including Coyaba Dance Theater, Ezibu Muntu African Dance, Farafina Kan and Konte’s own KanKouran West African Dance Company. Drumming and dance classes, a parade and an African marketplace with food, drinks and crafts also will be part of the nearly week-long celebration at Dance Place.
By calling attention to those who contributed to the growth of African dance and music in Washington, Perlo is paying back those who inspired her as a young modern dancer. The Dance Place founding director grew up in Kensington and didn’t see African dance until she was in college, when her dance teacher sent her to study with Davis, a North Carolina native who had made pilgrimages to Africa to seek out root dance forms to teach on American soil.
“I took one class with Chuck Davis and I fell in love with the art form,” Perlo says. “I realized that all the social dancing I had been doing as a young person was derivative of African dance.”
Years later, under Perlo’s direction, Dance Place set out to create a festival with local, national and international African dance troupes, replicating Davis’s prototype at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, now in its 35th year.
Deal, Davis and Konte have deep roots in Washington and have often worked together over their long careers. Davis, 75, studied dance at Howard University in the 1960s; Deal, 70, founded his African Heritage Drummers and Dancers here in 1973; and Konte, 60, came from Senegal to the District in the early 1980s, founding his company in 1983.
In fact, Deal was the first to hire the Senegalese dancer, even before Konte had mastered English. Drumming and dancing required no translation. “We all bonded for so many years,” Konte says of his work with Deal and Davis. “They opened the door for us Africans to come here and share our culture.”
Perlo insists that the time for honors is when those being honored are still around to receive the praise.
“It’s important that people understand the real significance of having and supporting creative artistic leaders like Assane, Baba Chuck and Melvin, who truly dedicate their lives to the perpetuation and understanding of the art form,” she says. “All three have been a powerful force in helping us find a greater understanding of the diversity of cultures we encounter, particularly in America.”
Davis finds the recognition both gratifying and humbling.
“It says we have done something right . . . but we must continue on that path. We can’t stop. We can’t slack,” he says.
And Davis still has work to do, children to teach and dances to share on the bantaba, the dancing ground.
“And, since this is the 25th year,” he adds, “everybody who comes to DanceAfrica, DC better be prepared to cut a step, because I’m ready to show a few from the 25th anniversary special!”