Dancing The African Diaspora: A Much-Needed Forum For Scholars Of Black Dance

Samba and tap dance. Line dance and hip hop. Capoeira and twerking. These are all dance styles that have their origins in the African diaspora and were topics for the scholars, teachers and artists that attended the Dancing the African Diaspora: Theories of Black Performance conference at Duke University.

The conference, which convened February 7-9, 2014, sought to provide space for an interdisciplinary and international discussion that would capture the variety of topics, approaches, and methods that constitute Black Dance Studies.

Dancing the African Diaspora was organized by the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD). The Collegium is a collaboration of dance scholars, dancers and teaching artists brought together by Thomas F. DeFrantz, Professor of African and African American Studies and Dance at Duke University.

CADD found a welcoming home at Duke, where two other members of the Dance Program faculty, Ava LaVonne Vinesett and Andrea E. Woods Valdés, also explore African diaspora dance as a resource and method of aesthetic identity.

Featuring 70 presenters from the U.S. and abroad, DeFrantz said the conference was a way to gather scholars, educators, practitioners and artists together to share ideas, research and movement in a way to understand both the historic connectivities and contemporary practice of black dance.

“It’s an opportunity to reflect upon and mobilize what we know about these dances and consider black performance in all of its idioms,” DeFrantz said.

The conference offered a mix of research on historical and intellectual approaches to the African Diaspora with workshops and performances which DeFrantz said made it a culturally rich experience.

Ann Mazzocca, a professor of dance at Christopher Newport University, agreed. Many national dance conferences she has attended offered far less by way of the actual practice of dance, she said. “This conference has had more actual dancing than any other conference I’ve been to, and I’ve really enjoyed that.”

CADD member and dance historian John O. Perpener III felt that the conference created a much-needed space for African American scholars and artists to discuss issues and ideas that were specifically relevant to their own work.

Perpener often attends national dance history organizations and conferences. Sometimes the African American representation is “very slim,” he says, “so this is amazing because we have a space of our own.”

Stafford C. Berry, Jr., a dancer and choreographer for the Berry & Nance Dance Project, echoed that sentiment. He enjoyed the opportunity to be around like minds and to meet and be reunited with people studying the African diaspora at all levels, from the grassroots to the collegiate.

Berry had been feeling the need a conference like this for some time. “It’s perfect timing because there are enough of us doing things that mean something different than in other environments,” he said. “There are several of us now in key positions so the need has been heightened, and I’m glad Tommy DeFrantz and the folks on the executive committee have convened us all.”

Dr. Baba Chuck Davis opened the conference with a drumming invocation, a call to all participants to be welcome in the space for an exchange of scholarship and inspiration. Davis is one of the foremost teachers and choreographers of tradition African dance in America.

Other special guests to the conference were Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the Urban Bush Women dance company; Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, former Bgirl and director of the documentary “All the Ladies Say”; and Dr. Kariamu Welsh, director of the Institute for African Dance Research and Performance and creator 33 years ago of the Pan African dance technique Umfundalai.

Urban Bush Women spent a two-week residency at Duke, presented by Duke Performances, which culminated in their performance of Hep Hep Sweet Sweet and Walking with ’Trane on the Friday night of the conference. While in residence at Duke, Zollar was interviewed by African and African American Studies professor Mark Anthony Neal on his weekly webcast “Left of Black.” She also appeared with DeFrantz on WUNC’s The State of Things to discuss the conference and the significance of keeping the dances of the African diaspora alive across the globe. The State of Things, hosted by Frank Stasio, is a statewide program that covers current issues and events occurring across North Carolina.

Zollar also joined DeFrantz, Neal, and CADD board member Takiyah Nur Amin for a panel discussion of the future of black dance. While they were looking forward to what the future might bring, the panel also looked back, hoping that these dances, their history, and all that they stood for would not be forgotten.

Rebecca Holmes, a Duke junior majoring in dance, economics and education, said she wanted to be a part of the conference to learn more about the history and context of the African diaspora.

“It’s really important to know that dance is not just movement – there’s so much more behind it and this conference is allowing me to learn that from people who are studying this, amazing dancers and amazing scholars,” Holmes said.

Vinesett summed up her experience of the conference in this way:

We had such an incredible range of presented works, and embodied scholarship occupied a central role in the conference. Both the need and desire to celebrate the numerous voices comprising Dancing the African Diaspora were urgent and relevant to all in attendance. Black masculinity, poetics, living histories, the documentation and archiving of creative work as a proof of one’s practice, authenticity, agency, dance as a catalyst for social change, transcultural healing practices, ancestral memories, choreographing liminality, curricular innovation, teaching pedagogy and philosophies, “blackness,” aesthetics, gender, and the role of our elders. These are several topics individuals discussed in an effort to articulate their connection to the African Diaspora and move the tradition of embodied scholarship forward.