Exuberant presentations by local companies Saturday celebrated three American mentors of African dance. Performances by KanKouran West African Dance Company and Coyaba Dance Theater at Washington’s 25th annual DanceAfrica festival feted festival director Chuck Davis and the city’s Melvin Deal, both in their 70s. Also honored was KanKouran artistic director Assane Konte, 61, who moved from Dakar, Senegal, to Washington in 1978. All were praised for using African dance and drumming as a means of teaching African Americans to connect with their heritage.
KanKouran fielded two generations of “edu-tainers” (a word coined by Davis). One group featured children who looked to be between the ages of 4 and 11; the other spotlighted the company’s senior dancers and drummers.
The presentation, at Dance Place, embodied the principle of respecting elders and the importance of recognizing that it is on their shoulders that youths build their accomplishments.
In Senegal’s Mandingo culture, KanKouran is a guide who assists boys and girls in their transition to adulthood. Coyaba depicted “the Amazon women of the Ivory Coast” who take care of the village and protect the children when men are away at war. The dances were intended to inspire and invigorate — and they succeeded in doing just that.
The evening underscored the significant role that Washington played in the use of arts in the African pride movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Davis was in the Navy when he came to Washington in the late 1950s, and he went on to Howard University’s theater and dance program before founding the Chuck Davis Company in 1968 in New York.
Deal founded his African Heritage Center for African Dance and Music in the District’s Ward 7 in 1973. Deal and Davis mentored Konte.
All three turned the tables on Dance Place founding director Carla Perlo by honoring her for hosting the festival and providing a performance venue for the city’s numerous African dance companies. Davis poured water around her as audience members extended their right hands in her direction in tribute — yet another memorable moment in a moving evening.
Squires is a freelance writer.