‘Homegrown’: At BAM, DanceAfrica Keeps It All in the Family

This weekend, when DanceAfrica returns to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for first time since 2019, the festival will also be returning to its roots. For this edition, the 45th, all the participating companies are local — as was the case in the early years. They’ve all appeared at the festival many times before, and their lineages are intertwined. Even more than usual, this DanceAfrica is a family reunion, a chance to see how the branches of the family tree have extended. Hence this year’s title, “Homegrown.”

Abdel R. Salaam, the festival’s artistic director since 2016, said he chose the theme for several reasons. Born in Harlem, he was a member of the Chuck Davis Dance Company when it started DanceAfrica at the Brooklyn Academy in 1977. Salaam recalled how the troupe had just returned from Festac, a Pan-African festival in Nigeria, and how the mini-series “Roots” had caught the energy of his generation, “children of the civil rights movement trying to discover our African roots and reclaim them.”

“This is bigger than me,” Salaam remembered Davis saying. The next year, DanceAfrica included four other local troupes.

“We didn’t have the financial resources yet to invite companies from the African continent,” Salaam said, “but we were trying to be as African as we could, studying with as many people from the continent as we could. And at a certain point they said, ‘We appreciate that you’re doing this exactly as we’ve taught, but what’s your story?’”

“That’s part of what I mean by ‘homegrown,’” he continued. “The stories and music and dance that evolved here were just as important. As African Americans, we were going to bring our own energy.”

But the homegrown theme also has another side. Often in these early years, Salaam said, a group might not have enough musicians or would need a substitute because somebody was “out hustling,” and “so everybody started working with everybody.” An extended family grew with the festival, incorporating the next generation — the children who, as Salaam put it, were “raised in the culture.” The companies in this year’s festival, many led by the adults those children became, are all part of that DanceAfrica family.

Aisha Hawkins rehearsing in Harlem with the LaRocque Bey School of Dance. Credit…Mark Elzey for The New York Times

The oldest is older than the festival: the LaRocque Bey School of Dance, founded in Harlem in 1960. Bey, who died in 1990, was a flamboyant, cape-wearing, larger-than-life figure, a Harlem legend connected to the Apollo Theater and Malcolm X. The school and its company are now directed by Jerome Hunter, Bey’s 56-year-old nephew.

“I was 8 when I saw how LaRocque’s presence commanded respect and how he touched people’s hearts,” Hunter said of Bey. “He had a love for this” — African drumming and dance, education — “and he instilled it in me.”

At a recent rehearsal, Hunter was the lead drummer, steering the music like a captain, but he was also the choreographer, demonstrating fine points of style, and the teacher, imparting lessons from his professional experience. In an interview after, he talked about how he combined what he was taught with other influences and about a trip to Sierra Leone in which the locals expressed happy surprise that “this guy from America is teaching us a culture some of us have forgotten.” But, mostly, he talked about his goal: touching hearts and changing lives.

The Bambara Drum and Dance Ensemble, another participant this year, is of more recent origin, starting in 1995 as the Bambara Drumming Society. But its artistic director for the past 20 years, Jewel Love, goes way back with DanceAfrica. She danced in the first one.

One of the first apprentices with Dance Theater of Harlem, Love was mainly a modern dancer when Chuck Davis asked her to come to his class in 1972. “That was a door opening,” she said. She joined his company and became a choreographer who approaches African dance as an African American.

“We are keeping African tradition alive but letting it morph into something that works for us,” she said, “because this is where I come from, the concrete I walk on, the nine to five I have to make while juggling my love for the arts.”

Love married the musical director of Davis’s company, Ron Love. They had a son, Adewole, and daughter, Noelani, who drummed and danced onstage as toddlers. Those children, now grown, help run Bambara: Adewole as the musical director, Noelani as the assistant artistic director. “We keep it in the family,” Love said.

Yao Ababio started The Asase Yaa African American Dance Theater “to use drum and dance to show urban stories and get across to the kids,” he said.Credit…Whitney Brown

Other children of DanceAfrica started their own troupes, two of which are returning for “Homegrown.” Yao Ababio, 47, created Asase Yaa African American Dance Theater in 2001. Its roots are in one of the original DanceAfrica companies: Dinizulu and His African Dancers, Drummers and Singers, founded in 1947 by another patriarch, Yao Opare Dinizulu.

Ababio grew up in Brooklyn, and from a very early age, his dream was to perform with the Dinizulu company and at DanceAfrica. At 14, he got his first chance at the DanceAfrica stage, but he caught chickenpox. “I was crying on my block — a rough, crack-ridden block — but my friends had my back because they knew how much it meant to me,” he said.

He started Asase Yaa “to use drum and dance to show urban stories and get across to the kids,” he said. “When we was coming up in the ’90s, growing up in hip-hop, sometimes people wouldn’t give my peers credit for keeping the African culture strong. But we come from a lineage of people who took this culture seriously. We are the culture.”

At a recent Asase Yaa rehearsal, Ababio’s brothers were among the drummers. (One, Kofi Osei Williams, is the executive director of the company and its affiliated school and foundation.) His daughter was dancing. In the corners were more kids, absorbing the vibrations.

It was in similar scenes that Mahiri Keita, 49, grew up with the Asase Yaa brothers. “We were the children running around, befriending each other, and not knowing that we would be taking the torch later,” he said. He founded Farafina Kan in 2004.

The idea for the name — “Sound of Africa” in Mandingo — came from his father, Mamady Keita, a prominent Guinean drummer who died last year. “It’s perfect,” Mahiri said, “because we are mixing and blending West African with urban street culture” — DJs, beatboxers, dancehall, krump. “We’re part of the continuum.” As are the other companies returning for “Homegrown.”

Farafina Kan performing at DanceAfrica in 2009. The group mixes and blends West African and urban street culture.Credit…Julieta Cervantes

Among these troupes, Harambee Dance Company might seem the outlier. Frank and Sandella Malloy started it in Charleston, S.C., in 1992. But when they moved to New York in 1996, they became part of the DanceAfrica family, too. Frank and their son, Frank Jr. — who grew up drumming with Harambee — often drummed for Forces of Nature, the company that Salaam founded in 1981.

That is another connection among the directors of this year’s companies: They’ve all drummed for Forces of Nature. And the connections extend to the two house troupes that appear at the festival every year. The Dance Africa Spirit Walkers, an alumni group that Salaam organized in 2016, is “a division of Forces of Nature,” he said. Some of the alumni come from the other house troupe, the BAM RestorationArt Dance Youth Ensemble.

That last group, now in its 25th year, is directed by Karen Thornton, who danced with Forces of Nature for a decade. But she came into the DanceAfrica family through the classes of its founder, Davis, who died in 2017. “I was always trying to hide,” she said of those classes. “One day, he threw his size 15 Converse sneaker at me, hit me and screamed, ‘Don’t you ever hide again.’”

“It changed me,” she said. “Baba Chuck opened my world.” Now she teaches children like the 9-year-old girl who expressed impatience to be in DanceAfrica because she had been “waiting all her life.”

“We are obligated to pass it on,” Thornton said. “It’s our turn. I don’t want that heavenly shoe hitting me upside the head.”


May 27-30 at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn; bam.org