African dancing is about many things -- the marriage of movement and drumming, the consecration of the ground and sky, the give-and-take between individual and group, and between the spirit world and daily existence. All of these elements came into glorious play at Saturday night's "Black Dance '85" at Gallaudet College's Elstead Auditorium, which featured performances by the North Carolina-based Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble and Washington's African Heritage Dancers and Drummers Big Ladies Project and Student Company.
This soul-stirring event served as the culmination of a week-long celebration of the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers' 25th anniversary. Directed by Melvin Deal -- one of this city's most committed and charismatic artistic presences -- the organization's classes, workshops and performances have imbued scores of Washingtonians with a love and respect for traditional African culture, and have inspired just as many to experience their culture through dancing and music making. Though Deal and company have had their ups and downs financially and otherwise, they continue to radiate an almost palpable sense of passion and faith that keeps them moving on to new projects and audiences.
Consider, for example, the contribution by both the Big Ladies Project and the African Heritage Student Company. Though both of these groups cannot be termed "professional," they exude such warmth, strength and involvement in their art that technical polish begins to seem secondary. "Abang," the Big Ladies' dance, is nothing more than an ode to the female form, in this case the ampler the better. Dressed in a dazzling array of fabrics, hoop skirts, scarves, jewels, beads and shells, the Big Ladies stamp and strut before a mammoth potentate and his court, reveling in the complex rhythms created by their feet, the wild rotations of their hips and the grandeur of their collective physical force.
The Student Company's three offerings ranged from the traditional to the contemporary. "Gum Boot," a dance performed by mine workers in reminiscence of ancient Zulu war dances, features a quintet in work clothes and heavy boots ringed with bells. Singing in wonderful open harmony, the dancers slap their heels, raise their fists defiantly, and stamp so vigorously that the bells go flying off their boots. In "Lamba," from Senegal, a line of women followed by a line of men perform a highly gestural dance full of arm work suggestive of birds and pinwheels. "Wolosadong," a dance of the slave caste Woloso people from Old Mali, concentrates almost exclusively on pelvic motion -- tipping the hips forward, rocking them backward, thrusting them wildly yet in perfect rhythmic collaboration with the drummers.
Chuck Davis, Melvin Deal's brother, heads a troupe that presents often similar material in a far more professional and definitely slicker manner. Davis, a huge fellow with a putty face and arms like a condor's wings, operates like a jazz master, opening the show, letting his "band members" display their specialties -- handsprings, pogo stick jumps, barrel turns and much more -- and then adding his own finely tuned stomp to the stew.
The raucous, moving program ended with the entire ensemble gathered on stage. After a brief but deeply felt speech by Deal, the dancers and drummers launched into a joyous impromptu demonstration of their craft that sent the audience cheering and shouting.