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Thursday, May 24, 2018

DanceAfrica Evolves

Abdel R. Salaam. Photo: Jack Vartoogian

By David Hsieh

For 40 years, the DanceAfrica Festival meant Baba Chuck Davis. As the founder and, until 2015, sole artistic director of the festival, he represented the festival, body and soul. With his 6-foot-5 height, booming voice, and regal dashikis, he was hard to miss on and off stage. Baba Chuck passed away at the age of 80 just before last year’s festival. His successor Abdel R. Salaam, is now writing the next chapter of this beloved tradition.

A native New Yorker, Salaam has been an artist within the African dance community throughout his career. In 1970, he entered the dance world through Joan Miller, whom he calls his “dance mother.” Years later, he served as associate artistic director of the Chuck Davis Dance Company before co-founding Forces of Nature Dance Theatre in 1981. Since becoming artistic director in 2016, Salaam has already put his imprimatur on the festival, winning a Bessie Award for his work. Abdel tells us what it’s like to be the new “light bearer” of DanceAfrica.

Ingoma Kwazulu Natal Dance Company. Photo courtesy of the artists.
Q: Putting together last year’s festival must have been an emotional experience. How did you manage to put on the regular program, and plan a tribute to Chuck Davis?

A: With a great team! Baba Chuck was our African dance father. We wouldn’t be where we are today without him. The traditions that gave birth to me made my connection with the elders and ancestors very strong. And that was true for the entire DanceAfrica community.

We chose to honor his life’s work. Everyday, he walks with us spiritually.

Q: What did he tell you to do with regards to DanceAfrica?

A: “Do not do it the way I did! You can honor the concept and my journey. But do it according to your own vision."

Q: What is that concept?

A: It began as a pathway of empowerment by exposing African-Americans to their African heritage and relationship to the continent, so our understanding of our ancestral legacies, past and present, would be elevated and exalted. Then we could build a global community.

Siwela Sonke.
Q: And what are you bringing in?

I’ve chosen to present my two artistic loves: traditional and contemporary dance. We’re not simply an ancient people only connected to our past. African traditions are created and then evolve. In the continent, you witness an Africa that is traditional and also dynamic; forever searching, growing, and changing. For example, in performances, once you add sound design, lights, and stagecraft to refigure them for Western theater, it’s no longer just traditional. It’s now living, organic art. I enjoy applying production values to tradition, always trying to create a theatrical experience. I’m driven to tell stories, old and new!

Q: How does this year’s festival fit into all of it?

A: I was a student of The Movements of the 60s and 70s. My company led the procession for Nelson Mandela when he visited New York in 1990. Black people here and in South Africa all know what it’s like to struggle for human rights; to have dogs unleashed on you; to have parents telling you not to go out at night because you could disappear. We had life and death struggles. Unfortunately, in 2018, they still exist. At times you’re angry; you never forget. But you can’t walk around carrying hatred in your heart because you will become disenfranchised from the source of light within. Within that construct of remembrance you come to reconciliation, which leads to renewal. That’s where dance and music thrive. Art entertains and also stimulates and heals our soul. It shapes how we see the future. DanceAfrica is past, present, and future generations. It is this I hope the audiences will see!

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.


  1. Baba Chucks shoes are too big for you to fit.

  2. Please review the footage of the previous shows before you try to present that garbage to us. What a disgrace. The guys in the red track suits with the umbrellas were a joke. I couldn't believe I was at Dance Africa. I know Baba Chuck Davis is very disappointed

  3. I purchased 7 tickets for my family and was very displeased with the contents of the show. It didn't meet my expectations of what I experienced in the past of previous shows. Next year I will just attend the bazaar.


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