Dance Place continued its Black History Month series yesterday with a one-night stand by one of Washington's most historical groups, Melvin Deal's African Heritage Dancers and Drummers. Now in its 31st year and composed of three companies, for there were "juniors," "seniors" and "elders" who joined forces for this performance, this organization's aims include education as well as putting on a show.
On this occasion it was the contingent of young drummers who were in the limelight. One moment one admired their ensemble discipline in coordinating West African music's tricky rhythms, and the next it was their ability to step out for bravura solos of remarkable spontaneity. One of the boys even helped a young woman in an initiation ceremony from Guinea to show her readiness for marriage by placing his drum practically in her lap and performing on it while she executed shutter steps.
As in all dance forms that emphasize stepping, the spectator is tempted to focus on the feet. If one does this watching ballet, much of the total movement can be lost from view. In the dances of West Africa, as Melvin Deal arranges them, there are enough repetitions so that one can look just at the footwork for a while and then shift one's gaze to see it as part of the whole body in motion. Nevertheless, Deal astutely limits repetition by varying steps, formations or individual performers.
Last night's bill opened with a Wolosa, a slave dance that resembles a conga line, in which a file of women with hands tied behind their heads, took two high steps, went into a knee bend, contracted vigorously and paused with one heel raised. Also on the program were a marriage dance from Senegal with strong stamping, a harvest dance that imitates birds' mating behavior, a birthing dance in which delivery is mimicked, a couple of initiation rites and the Abang, described as a display of virgins after they've been fattened for marriage.
Each of this weekend's Black History programs at Dance Place features different performers.