IT'S BEEN 17 YEARS since the first piercing drum calls broke the quiet of a Brookland neighborhood one blistering summer day to inaugurate DanceAfrica DC. Back then it was a makeshift affair: Audiences sat on the floor on pillows or in the wooden bleachers at Dance Place cooling themselves with fans made from the festival programs. But even then there were enough African dancers and drummers who called Washington and its suburbs home to fill a program. This weekend, as DanceAfrica DC returns for the 17th time, 17 companies and individuals will be performing -- dancing and drumming, chanting and telling stories -- both in the cozy theater and outside in the village-like African marketplace staged in the yard surrounding Dance Place, Washington's most prolific presenter of ethnic and contemporary dance.
Seventeen is a happy coincidence of numbers for festival director Carla Perlo and festival artistic adviser Chuck Davis, the ebullient master storyteller who brings his uplifting mantra, "Peace, love, respect for everybody," to cities and towns across the country, frequently joined by his North Carolina-based African American Dance Ensemble. Davis is a griot, a keeper and purveyor of African cultural traditions. His work, though, doesn't take place in an African village, but in theaters and community centers, schools and cultural festivals, across the country. He calls what he does -- dancing, drumming, storytelling, instructing -- "edutainment," and it's this mix of folksy stories and serious scholarship that has been a model for African companies in the United States.
His travels have taken him throughout Africa, to major cities and isolated villages where Davis has learned African dance and music from village elders, which he then brings back home to the United States to teach and pass on to a new generation. "DanceAfrica's mandate," Davis notes, "is always to share our traditions. We want the public to know that there are others that have now taken on the mantle of preserving the tradition. This is a showcase for them."
While Davis serves as the festival's elder statesman, throughout the weekend, new and youthful companies and performers will share the stages with long-established troupes. There's the stalwart African Heritage Dancers & Drummers, a Washington cultural institution founded in 1960 by Melvin Deal during the rise of the civil rights movement, and the exuberantly energetic KanKouran West African Dance Company, now in its 20th year under the direction of Senegalese native Assane Konte. Of the DanceAfrica newcomers, Marietta Ulacia initiated Ashe Moyubba Folkloric Ensemble just two years ago. The company offers a new approach to the traditional blend of Afro-Cuban dance. Ulacia and her ensemble combine contemporary dance styles with traditional instrumentation and songs.
Lesole Z. Maine is another new recruit to the vibrant local African dance scene. A recent transplant from Johannesburg, Maine represents the current generation of African dancers in his intention not only to preserve his culture, but also to fuse traditional styles with influences from contemporary dance and music. Maine, who began ballroom dancing at age 9, discovered Afrofusion when he joined Johannesburg's Moving Into Dance. Afrofusion informs his solo, "Uqinisufokotho" ("Brace Yourself") on Saturday night's program. The work, he explains, delves into his dual tribal legacies -- his father belongs to the Sotho tribe, his mother was Zulu. Now Maine finds himself pulled again, between his African traditions and the American culture of his adopted home here in Silver Spring.
As tradition and innovation intertwine in African dance, Davis sees a new vitality in the form. "Africa is an ever-changing continent," he says. "It doesn't remain on one plane: It's expanding and exploding all over the world. Through the inspiration from all different sources, [younger dancers] have taken their tradition and coupled it with contemporary forms." Ultimately, Davis notes, "It is about being inspired by the traditions of Africa."
DANCEAFRICA DC -- Saturday and Sunday, Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St., NE. Throughout the day master classes are offered and free performances take place on the outdoor stage. Both days feature an indoor matinee at 4 and an evening gala at 8.