By Wanda Ravernell
Dancers and dance lovers gathered at San Francisco’s Counter-Pulse, a space on San Francisco’s Mission Street, for a daylong symposium preceding a two-weekend long “Performing Diaspora” festival.
Sponsored by a variety of cultural and philanthropic supporters of the arts, the symposium delved into some profound and often unspoken themes that arise in teaching and learning dance from the all over the world but, especially from the African Diaspora.
Curated by Lily Kharrazi, program manager of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and Umi Vaughan, author and associate professor California State University of Monterrey Bay, the symposium brought together several generations of originators and progenitors of the African American and African dance movement in the Bay Area from as early as the late 1960s.
Although there are now perhaps dozens of schools, colleges, dance studios, dance companies, public centers and the like that offer an ever-widening variety of dance styles from many countries from the continent of Africa, opportunities to delve deeply into the historical causes and social aspects of the diaspora that dance exposes have not been consistently or consciously explored.
The morning began with a solo performance by panelist Germaine Ingram, whose barefoot tap dance and spoken word about the African Middle Passage created rhythms that were accompanied by harpist Chris Evans. “It created a grounding for what we would be talking about,” Kharrazi said
Panelist Byb Chanel Bibene and Chey Chankethya spoke of how “dance artists unpack their personal relationship to the horrors of human atrocity and of living with the memory of civil war and genocide.
Fear so pervaded Bibene’s existence, he explained, “my body was alive but not alive. It took food, it took water but didn’t enjoy it.” Chankethya, whose parents and older brothers and sisters survived the Pol Pot regime that killed millions at the end of the War in Vietnam, describes a ‘silence’ that separates her from them emotionally.
Tensions rose in the room, during the panel on Representing Africa. Over the last 40 years, African dance and dance classes have become almost an industry.
African American dancers and choreographers including Blanche Brown, Halifu Osumare, Linda Johnson, Linda Goodman, Deborah Vaughan were among the many pioneers in what was known and black dance and Haitian dance, joined in the later 1970s and early 1980s by the legendary C.K. Ladzekpo and the late Malounga Casquelourd.
The question of who owns the dance and who has the authority to teach the dance was explored on several levels and a particular sore spot was who could afford to go to dance camps overseas for an in-depth experience of its culture milieu.
In “Sacred Dance Onstage” Ladzekpo, Mahealani Uchiyama and Jose Francisco Barrosso talk about making sure that students are prepared for a possible spiritual experience while dancing, although Ladzekpo laughed off his first experience when a student touched by spirit wanted to sue him.
The Performing Diaspora Festival continued through Aug. 25 and included Congolese, East Indian, Chinese and European themed dances. For more information, please go to www.counterpulse.org.