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In Coyaba’s Kwanzaa program, a gifted community offers a community gift

Coyaba Dance Theater at DanceAfrica, D.C. 2012. The group performed a Kwanzaa Celebration show at Dance Place Dec. 14, 15 and 16. (Enoch Chan)

Coyaba Dance Theater’s West African dance program Friday was a great holiday gift. Before the opening there was great excitement, followed by squeals of joy and high-energy appreciation on the part of both performers and audience members.

Coyaba’s founder, Sylvia Soumah, packed 62 student dancers and musicians of all ages, plus scads of their relatives and friends, into Dance Place’s small space to celebrate the 46th annual Kwanzaa, a holiday created specifically for African Americans in 1966 by Africana studies professor Maulana Karenga and celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.

A mother, her arms filled with the raffia and bright cloth of her daughter’s costumes, followed in the wake of her excited grade-schooler. A father held a bouquet of flowers to present to his daughter after the performance. It was a collective event, and an emotional one.

Soumah embodies many of Kwanzaa’s seven principles. She has built a dance community that has held together for years (unity), for example, and with great resolve (purpose) has made that community increasingly better and more beautiful (creativity) in the 16 years since Coyaba was founded.

The joy in dancing and making music that Soumah’s big, warm personality inspires was reflected in her community’s wide smiles as they danced and drummed and watched. The dancers — from toddlers to seniors — were the focus of the event. Eight pieces of varying lengths were identified in the program with an African name (though their languages were not named), the student group (such as “9:45 class”) and the choreographer.

Coyaba Dance Theater at Family Festival 2011. The company performs a Kwanzaa Celebration show on Dec. 14, 15 and 16 at Dance Place. (Enoch Chan)

No mention was made in the program of each dance’s specific geographic or tribal origin other than “West African.” But rather than this being something missing, this could indicate what is newly significant in the healthy evolution of African dance performed by Americans. Are choreographers gaining ascendance over origin?

Special kudos to the drummers, who displayed the kind of talent that separates musicians from the rest of the people, and the special skill set that separates drummers from the rest of musicians. The ensemble was precise, powerful and tight.

Squires is a freelance writer.



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