Chuck Davis's winning personality -- together with his vast knowledge of dance and music from the African continent -- has helped make African dance part of the American cultural landscape.
This weekend he returns to Washington, where the energetic form is represented by a strong assortment of homegrown companies. At the 14th annual DanceAfrica DC festival at Dance Place, which Davis co-founded with Dance Place Director Carla Perlo, more than a dozen troupes totaling 100-plus performers will dance and drum from noon 'til night, indoors and out. The festival honors women of African descent as well as the memory of Andrew Cacho, a Belize-born drummer and leader of his own community-focused company.
A Raleigh, N.C., native, Chuck Davis arrived in Washington in 1959 to study at Howard University. He didn't stay long enough for a degree, but he studied ballet, jazz, modern and African dance. His first professional gig, though, was strictly for the nightclub circuit: "We had seven minutes and you name it, we did it. I had a waistline of 29 inches, we wore skimpy little costumes and we danced our little tuchises off." The troupe, La Dalemo Trio, was short-lived. Four weeks later, Davis says, "I was on a Trailways bus to New York."
In 1980, dissatisfied with the amateurish and culturally ignorant programs of African dance he encountered, Davis formed his own group, which toured nationally and internationally. At the same time he began frequent pilgrimages to Africa, where he learned from village elders the value of passing on the cultural heritage to youngsters seemingly adrift in a media-saturated world.
For, even today, Davis remarks, "Many people in America -- black, white, blue, whatever color -- still look upon Africa as the land of Tarzan. It is up to me to let the truth be known. We can grab their attention with music and dance, but we must make sure it is the truth."
This year DanceAfrica DC honors women of African descent for their strength, beauty and wisdom. "We have been taught that the male is the strength of the species," he says. "But it is the female that does all the work. It is the sisterhood of lions who take care of business."
Women are well represented at DanceAfrica. Women dominate the Dono Drum and Dance troupe, and Return From Goree, an all-female company, breaks societal norms when the jun-jun player beats out rhythms on the "mother drum" with explosive power. And Washington's Coyaba Dance Theater has the charismatic Sylvia Soumah at its helm.
African dance ceremonies originally marked agricultural, religious or social rites of passage on sacred village dancing grounds. "I take that two-week ceremony and condense it into 35 minutes for the stage," Davis says. "It is not the ceremony, but it gives an idea of what goes on through movement in a community."
DANCEAFRICA DC 2001 -- Saturday and Sunday, Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. The full-day schedule begins at 10 both days with a master class and continues with indoor and outdoor performances. Saturday's 7 p.m. memorial concert honors Andrew Cacho with words of wisdom from Chuck Davis and performances by Coyaba, KanKouran West African Dance Company, Melvin Deal and the Dance Place Energizer Youth Group. Call 202/269-1600.