Kwanzaa: Embracing Its Full Meaning

By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 16, 2005

The first time Melvin Deal observed Kwanzaa was in 1966, the year Maulana Karenga created the African American observance as a means to unify an often-disparate black community. Deal, founder and director of the District-based African Heritage Dancers & Drummers, recalls that the first Kwanzaa and many following were looked upon as "anti-Christian, something dark and mysterious," both by some in the African American community and by outsiders. But, Deal explains, "Kwanzaa has always meant something very intrinsically rich to African heritage and to the cultural nationalist community because of the joy and richness of the holiday season."

Deal's company will be among numerous African dance and drumming groups presenting events for Kwanzaa, whose name derives from a Swahili term referring to the first fruits of harvest season. The weeklong celebration begins Dec. 26.

Here in America, our first fruits are different, Deal suggests. His Kwanzaa program at THEARC in Southeast Washington features his own troupe, along with the Andrew Cacho Drummers & Dancers, Ezibu Muntu Dancers & Drummers, and students from the Washington School of Ballet, the Kuumba Learning Center and the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Deal plans to celebrate umoja, unity, by reflecting on triumphs and challenges African American forebears faced. "We're focusing on the wisdom and knowledge of those ancestors that have gone before us in an effort to find answers to problems of today's society," Deal says.

A more recent Kwanzaa adherent is Sylvia Soumah, who founded Coyaba Dance Theater in 1997 and whose program this weekend at Dance Place will feature upward of 60 performers ages 4 to 83. The youngest dancers are part of her Coyaba Academy in Northeast Washington, while the senior dancers participate in her African dance classes at the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center in Southeast.

"These seniors are wonderful," Soumah says. "They show me how to appreciate life with their spirit and their energy. . . . It's good for the kids to see seniors who are really with it, healthy and able to do a lot of things. Not only do the seniors have a lot of wisdom, they have a lot of energy. That's what makes this program so special."

Soumah explains Kwanzaa's embrace of music and dance as natural: "The drumming is about spirit. . . . It is important because it's acknowledgment of the past, of your ancestors telling you what you need to do to move forward. Because if you don't know your past, you don't know your future."

Fabian Barnes oversees perhaps the region's largest Kwanzaa performance, "The Spirit of Kwanzaa," a frequently sold-out event at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall now in its 10th year. The founding artistic director of the Dance Institute of Washington, Barnes agrees with Soumah when it comes to Kwanzaa's integration of music and dance: "For me, [dance and music] are a perfect way to express the meaning behind the principles of Kwanzaa, along with the spoken word. There's poetry, music, dance and visual arts in our performance."

African Heritage's Deal, who has studied and taught mainly West African dance in the District for more than 40 years, says: "There's a reason that African people use music and dance to validate the spoken word. . . . After one speaks, you validate what you've said by dancing and playing instruments. So that's a spiritual and metaphysical way of enfranchising what you've said."

And an important component of observing Kwanzaa.

KWANZAA CELEBRATION WITH COYABA DANCE THEATER Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 4. Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. 202-269-1600.

AFRICAN HERITAGE DANCERS & DRUMMERS KWANZAA CELEBRATION Dec. 26 at 7:30. THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE. 202-889-5901.

DANCE INSTITUTE OF WASHINGTON'S "THE SPIRIT OF KWANZAA" Dec. 28-29 at 8. Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company