"Cultural healing" was the theme of the African Heritage Dancers & Drummers' 33rd Anniversary concert Saturday at Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast Washington, and the pride, support and profound concern that formed the pillars of the performance surely soothed many hearts. Artistic Director Melvin Deal has made it his mission to employ the traditional African model of peer development and community values in building the self-esteem and health of the African American community, and in a moving introduction to the performance stated that though many of his talented young dancers suffered various problems, "the culture is cooling them out."
As if that effect were not enough, the vibrant, rapturous dancing and drumming of African Heritage and its guest companies, La Musicale Danceworks and Richmond's Ezibu Muntu, were of a passionate and virtuosic caliber seldom seen on this city's stages.
"Kouyaga," a dance from northeastern Ivory Coast that introduces virgins to the community and potential suitors, transported the school auditorium to an explosive tribal festival, with a corps of young female dancers chanting, dipping and bobbing, pumping their knees like pistons, taking center stage one by one for frenetic solos; drummers -- led by the astounding Robert Myers -- emitting a storm of sound that rattled the teeth; and three "master stilt walkers," towering masked figures swaying in the background, one of whom carried a large, writhing snake.
Other vibrant offerings were "Koukou" and "Doumdoumba," fertility and warrior dances respectively, from Guinea in West Africa; and "Ndaga," a dance from Mali and Senegal to exorcise evil. No less impassioned, La Musicale presented "Begayay," a dance of Guadeloupe and Martinique that blends the court dances of French landowners with African social dances, and "Bongo," a funeral dance to send the dead off joyously; Ezibu Muntu performed "Mandiani Suite," a Senegambia initiation dance.