February is Black History month, and though yesterday marked its calendar start, the Smithsonian has been getting the jump on celebrating the occasion with some mightily stimulating and revelatory programs involving dance history and performance.
At Carmichael Auditorium Thursday night, the National Museum of American Art, as part of its "Continuing Traditions: A Festival of Afro-American Arts," presented Lenwood Sloan and Friends in an annotated medley of 19th-century Afro-American dance forms, a program evocatively labeled "Stepping Out!"
Sloan is a dancer, choreographer and researcher who has specialized in the reconstruction -- from graphic and written historical records -- of Afro-American dances of the past. He's been the artistic director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's much heralded "Sweet Saturday Night" programs (a new edition comes up next week at BAM), surveying black street and social dances from the cakewalk to electric boogie. Some of his fine work was also seen nationally last week on public TV in the "Dance Black America" special filmed two years ago at BAM.
Thursday night's "Stepping Out!," covering dances from the 1840s to the early 20th century, featured Sloan himself narrating and illustrating, along with more extended performances by his troupe of 11 dancers and three musicians. There were two considerable drawbacks. One was purely circumstantial -- the dancers had to perform on the carpeted floor of the none too sizable Carmichael stage, a formbidable obstacle that they overcame as pluckily as possible. The other was the garbled nature of Sloan's commentary -- his enthusiasm was infectious, but if you had no idea beforehand what kinds of things the Calinda or the Juba were, or who Pere Labat was, or when and why the Astor Place Riot took place, Sloan's spotty, sprawling explanations would have left you still wondering.
The compensatory reward was in the dancing and music making, which, if they didn't sort out for the inquisitive observer the specific contributions of black Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas to the wondrous fusions one saw, certainly communicated their character and spirit.
A more illuminating balance among history, theory and practice was achieved Wednesday night at Baird Auditorium, where, under other Smithsonian auspices, Yale Prof. Robert F. Thompson discoursed brilliantly on the theme "Before Breakdancing: Art and Sport in the Black Atlantic World." Here, illustration was provided both by slide projections, and immensely reverberant dancing by two groups -- Jelon Vieira and one of his disciples in the Afro-Brazilian martial art called capoeira, and a youthful ensemble of Washington breakdancers. Together, they brought galvanic life to Thompson's lucidly made points about the transmission and transmutation of dance cultures.