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Date Observed: Varies according to location
Location: Brooklyn, New York; Washington, D.C.;
and Chicago, Illinois

DanceAfrica is a festival of African and African-American dance founded in 1977 by dancer and choreographer Chuck Davis in Brooklyn, New York. The event seeks to educate diverse peoples about the rich heritage of African-influenced music and dance.

Historical Background

Enslaved Africans brought their dancing traditions to the Americas and the Caribbean islands. On the slave ships, Africans frequently were brought up from the hold to the deck to dance, sometimes forced with a whip.

For slaves, dance became a way to mock slave owners as well as communicate with each other. The "cakewalk," for example, derives from a competitive couples dance that parodied European pattern dances, such as quadrilles and cotillions.

Some plantation owners forbade slave dances, and even the mere act of raising a foot could be interpreted as dancing. Thus, many slaves took to gliding and limiting their arm and torso movements as much as possible.

As time passed, however, and as slaves were allowed and even encouraged to worship as Christians, they began to integrate traditional African dance rituals into ceremonies. Plantation owners were swayed, in time, to encourage dance events and make them competitive.

For whites, slave dances were a form of entertainment. Whites in blackface traveling in minstrel shows in the late 1700s through the late 1800s helped to popularize the cakewalk, waltz, shuffle, and other dances. The minstrel show, however, perpetuated a distorted view of blacks within white society, especially when a white performer Thomas "Jim Crow" Rice imitated an elderly lame slave, keeping a caricature of African Americans alive for decades.

The stereotypical view of black entertainers did not change until after World War I. By that time many African Americans had migrated from the South to the North and West. In the 1920s the Harlem Renaissance generated an explosion of literary, artistic, and musical creativity (see also African American Day Parade and Harlem Week). All aspects of the arts were impacted and dance no less notably. During this period, the old plantation standard of tap dancing was revived, combined with elements of shuffling and acrobatics, and was featured on stages from Broadway to Chicago.

The development of juke joints and speakeasies of the era offered venues for African Americans to experiment and create their own forms of dance art. Thus, the Charleston, Ballin' the Jack, and the Jitterbug were born.

Several African Americans founded important dance companies during the 20th century. In 1937 dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist Katherine Dunham established the Negro Dance Group in Chicago, Illinois. Dunham's travels to the Caribbean inspired her to create a dance company that helped establish the credibility of African ritual dances as an art form. Anthropologist Pearl Primus, born in Trinidad, made a similar impact. In 1946 she founded a dance company in New York City. In 1958 dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey started his renowned company. And, in 1967 Chuck Davis, founder of DanceAfrica, formed his dance company at Bronx Community College in New York.

Creation of the Festival

In 1977 Chuck Davis, dancer and choreographer, conceived the idea for the festival after watching an old Tarzan movie, in which the "natives" are depicted as primitive stereotypes. He decided to show that people of African descent were "not about 'ooga-booga,'" and that was the origin of DanceAfrica.

Davis produced the first DanceAfrica festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with just his own company. By year two, the roster had notably expanded to include Charles Moore and Dances and Drums of Africa; International African-American Ballet; Nana Dinizulz and His Dancers, Drummers and Singers; and Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble.

The festival was so successful it spread to other cities over the years. In 1988 the first DanceAfrica in Washington, D.C., was held. And in 1991 DanceAfrica was inaugurated in Chicago, Illinois.


The original DanceAfrica in New York takes place over Memorial Day weekend, at the end of May, each year. It is hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. DanceAfrica in Washington, D.C., is hosted at the Dance Place each year during the second week in June. The Dance Center of Columbia College is headquarters for DanceAfrica Chicago, where the annual festival occurs in late October.

Each DanceAfrica festival showcases African and African-American dance in all its varieties. Performances draw upon authentic African components - from the use of traditional percussion instruments and rhythmic beats to the exquisitely designed and colored costumes. The desire is to create a cultural bridge, uniting people of all ages, genders and races.

Praise for Davis

In Dance Magazine K. C. Patrick summarizes what artistic director Chuck Davis has done with DanceAfrica performances: building and "crossing a bridge - a bridge constructed through the years by Davis to connect the roots and branches of Africa and African American dance. He shows the whole spectrum, from traditionalists to the avant-garde. It wasn't always so; what now seems self-apparent exists because Davis started building the bridge twenty-five years ago."

Contacts and Web Sites

DanceAfrica in Brooklyn Brooklyn Academy of Music Peter Jay Sharp Bldg. 30 Lafayette Ave. Brooklyn, NY 11217 718-636-4100

DanceAfrica Chicago 312-344-7070 DanceAfrica in Washington, DC Dance Place 3225 8th St., N.E. Washington, DC 20017 202-269-1600; fax: 202-269-4103

"Free to Dance," an online companion to the 2001 PBS documentary

Office of Community Arts Partnerships Columbia College Chicago 312-342-8850

Further Reading

Farley Emery, Lynn. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. 3rd ed. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 2005. Patrick, K. C. "Chuck Davis and Dance Africa." Dance Magazine, April 2004. Welsh-Ashante, Kariamu, ed. African Dance: An Artistic, Historical and Philosophical Inquiry . Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1994.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007


Late May and early June
DanceAfrica is a festival of dance that takes place annually in New York City during the Memorial Day weekend in late May; it then restages on a somewhat smaller scale during the first weekend in June in Washington, D.C. Founded by choreographer Chuck Davis and headquartered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the festival began in 1977 as a means of counteracting the negative stereotypes of African dance presented in film and other media. Davis conceived of the festival as a way to provide a "cultural bridge" showing the range and beauty of traditional African dance and its influence on contemporary American dance forms.
Each DanceAfrica festival features an international cast of dancers and musicians and showcases such forms as African folk dance, Afro-Caribbean fusion, and African-American dance theatre. In addition, the weekend includes African music and film presentations, master classes, and an outdoor marketplace featuring African-themed arts, food, clothing, and crafts.
DanceAfrica in New York
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Peter Jay Sharp Bldg.
30 Lafayette Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217
DanceAfrica in Washington, D.C.
Dance Place
3225 8th St. N.E.
Washington, DC 20017
202-269-1600; fax: 202-269-4103
AAH-2007, p. 115
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
She held the position of Artist of the Year for Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAM DanceAfrica 2007 in Brooklyn.
DanceAfrica is the nation's largest African dance festival in the U.S.
Shepard, a former presenter at Brooklyn Academy of Music who helped establish the DanceAfrica festival with Chuck Davis, is committed to revamping the Apollo's dance programming.
DanceAfrica, conceived in 1977 and continuing thirty years later, is a three-day extravaganza with performances and activities that spill out from the stages into the streets.
* DanceAfrica has always celebrated African and African American rhythmic movement.
Brooklyn's DanceAfrica festival, the annual feast of sights and sounds that takes over the Brooklyn Academy of Music Memorial Day weekend, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.
Dance Magazine writer Susan Yung has contributed pieces on Martha Graham, DanceAfrica, Bill T.
* DanceAfrica 2006, A lively and diverse festival of African and African-American dance, music, film and art, Brooklyn Academy of Music.
DanceAfrica and its founder Chuck Davis are taking audiences to a different part of the African continent this season with the Pamodzi Dance Troupe of Zambia.
Baba Chuck Davis, founder of DanceAfrica, met Harris at an IABD conference and invited his then three-year-old company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, to present Students of the Asphalt Jungle for DanceAfrica 1995 at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Their recipe resembles the "edutainment" that Chuck Davis promotes as founder of DanceAfrica and his African American Dance Ensemble.