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KanKouran’s African dancers honor pair who pioneered art form in Washington

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Assane Konte, artistic director of KanKouran West African Dance Company, stomps in naked feet.

He stretches his arms as if he were a bird with long, lovely and powerful wings. The drums beat faster and faster. Konte’s body moves as though on fire, quickly and strongly, graceful and yet intense. It is as if he and the drums are connected.

The drums beat out a call and he answers. “Ooyei ah yei mah somba!” He calls to the elders, singing, “We honor you.”

More dancers enter the stage.

“It is the coming of the whole village,” Konte says later. The dance is to show the elders “anytime they need us, we will be there. You can get us out of Africa. May you never take Africa out of us.”

Konte, who co-founded the acclaimed KanKouran troupe here in 1983, has two elders in particular whom he wishes to honor. On Saturday at the Lisner Auditorium, his company will present “Legends,” a performance meant to celebrate local African dance pioneers Melvin Deal and Charles “Chuck” Davis.

Deal, 68, is the founder and artistic director of the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, which started in the District in 1959. Davis, 74, is the founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble, which opened in 1984 in Durham, and the New York-based Dance Africa, which dates to 1977. The two men, who met as theater students at Howard University in the early 1960s and later researched African dance at the Library of Congress and on trips to Africa together, are both highly regarded in dance circles for their teaching expertise and for introducing the art form to the nation’s capital.

“They opened the door for us, for Africa coming here,” Konte, 61, says of Deal and Davis’s influence in the founding of his own company, which he started with Abdou Kounta, a Senegalese master drummer. “They were the first people I met when I came here in 1978 from Senegal.”

African dance is traditionally focused on honoring elders. In this case, Konte says he wanted to honor his two colleagues while they are still living: “Most of the time we honor people who are no longer around. I said, ‘Not this time.’ ”

Deal, who was born in the District, and Davis, who was born in Raleigh, N.C., became intrigued by African dance in the 1950s before most people in the United States knew much about it.

“It wasn’t until I got to D.C. that my interest in dance, the seed was planted,” Davis says. “That is where I met Melvin.”

At that time, in the early ’60s, Deal says, “Africa was still considered the ‘dark continent.’ Anything coming out of Africa was not deemed credible. I was specifically told that ballet was the only form of dance recognized worldwide and I would not be received” respectfully for dancing in the African tradition.

“Back in the day,” Deal says, “it was called primitive dance or ethnic dance. It was [viewed as] people jumping up and down and yelling and screaming and banging on instruments. ”

Little did the critics understand the history and the culture from which African dances sprang, he says.

“Birds and animals are used as models for the dance, which means the virtue of the bird’s beauty and grace or the strength and vitality of the animal,” Deal says. “The people copy birds and animals in order to bring that manifestation to themselves.”

For example, he says, the D’Jola people dance strong like the cattle they herd. “They see cattle stomp, and they stomp,” Deal says. “They do it rhythmically and do it to show strength. When we come to dance, they say, ‘We are strong. Look at us. We are strong.’ ”

In the ’60s, Deal and Davis often danced in coffeehouses, churches and parks. “We were dyed-in-the-wool Africans, and we were not going to stop. We kept saying, ‘We don’t care how much you laugh or don’t give us credibility. We will keep doing it.’ ”

Deal and Davis were building a following, teaching the culture to students and laying the foundation for Konte’s arrival in America: “When Assane arrived, he was able to come in and do all the wonderful things he has done as a dancer.”

Konte, who is from Senegal, began his career as a professional dancer at the age of 15 with Ballet Africaine de Diebel Guee in Dakar. His dancing amazed audiences in Africa. In 1978, after a tour in the Ivory Coast, he was hired as a dancer for a theme park in San Diego.

Upon his arrival, Konte first spent time in Washington and New York. He recalled seeing Davis dance for the first time in Central Park. “I hear the drum,” Konte says. “I see Chuck Davis with a dance company. I stand on the side. I didn’t speak English.” Someone told him the performers were an African dance company based in New York.

Konte was amazed: “I thought it is not possible for [an] African American to dance like this.”

The term “African dance” generally refers to dances from regions in western and sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. African dance is polycentric, meaning different parts of the body move to match different rhythms in the music. The drummers control the rhythm and the dancers. Drums are considered the “heartbeat” of villages.

“The drum talks,” says Deal. “The drum will call you even if you are in hiding. It will call you. I have been in places where the drum will call, and I will go.”

In Africa, he says, when drummers are drumming and there is a gathering, it is the tradition that you dance with people. “If you don’t dance with the people, what you are saying is you do not love them and respect them.”

“When you are in the midst of the drumming and the fervor of the dance, it is so infectious that people who say, ‘I don’t dance,’ will find themselves dancing. The reason is it is so infectious, so powerful.”

“Through that power, you will find elders who are very old, but when the drumming starts, you will see them dance as if they were 20, and they might be 80.” Deal says.“People look at me and say, ‘How do you dance? I am 68. They say you are dancing like a teenager. I say it is the power of the drum. I say it is the power of the spirit of the ancestors. They get in our body and dance like the wind.”

In Africa, elders are traditionally held in high esteem for their wisdom and knowledge. They are considered the keepers of traditions and the teachers of society, Konte says. Their advice is traditionally sought by the young before they make any life decisions. During the performance Saturday, a griot, or African historian, will sing praises to Deal and Davis, the elders of the moment.

They will be praising Africa right back. “We are carrying forth the legacy that has been passed down,” Davis says. “We are standing on the shoulders of the most powerful ancestors in the universe.”

KanKouran: Legends

A celebration of the legacy and artistry of dance’s living legends, Melvin Deal and Chuck Davis. Saturday at 8 p.m., Lisner Auditorium, 703 21st NW. 202-994-6800. www.lisner.org.

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