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Dance Opens the Door to History

When someone hears about a college course titled “dance history” the tendency is to think it’s a class that informs students about notable choreographers such as George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. Or perhaps it’s about movements in dance, from ballet to modern to hip-hop. Closer examination shows dance provides a window to detailed historical context particularly as it relates to racial, economic and class issues.

An exploration and understanding of different dance genres can provide students of Africana studies, women’s and gender studies, as well as American studies a wealth of information about cultural expression and unearth often overlooked pieces of history.

“Dance historically has been one way — not for all cultures, but for many cultures — of passing down histories and telling stories,” says Dr. Paul Scolieri, assistant professor of dance at Barnard College, who teaches a course in Latin American and Caribbean dance history.

“You look at dance as a pathway to understand those stories, narratives and experiences that don’t make themselves into what we traditionally think of as ‘history,’ ” he says. “We look at dance forms not only as leisure, entertainment and commercial rituals, but sometimes these choreographies also tell histories of imperialism, histories of oppression and histories of resistance.”

Dr. Ann Cooper Albright, professor of dance and theater at Oberlin College, says she always has seen dance as a holistic discipline of the mind and the body.

“When I teach dance history, I really look at lots of different movements on stage, but also social movements,” Albright says. “You can study the world through dance.

“At any historical moment, you can look at what’s happening in dance and really get a lot of information about whose bodies are important. Where are those bodies? What are they doing? How are bodies implicated in certain kinds of cultural discourses?”

Scolieri says his studies in Caribbean and Latin American dance reveal that a lot of social dance forms are born out of oppression.

“Born out of racial/ethnic class conflict,” he says. “What’s fascinating about dance is that it expresses resistance, but often times in the most pleasurable ways. That’s what’s so exciting and complex about these dance forms is that they’re immediately a type of pleasure and at the same time dealing philosophically, politically, socially and personally with experiences of oppression and resistance.”

Dance/movement therapist Angela Tatum Fairfax says dance may have been a form of unspoken therapy for individuals. “Movement therapy allows people to go to a place within to search for how they are feeling and express that through their movement,” she explains. “Making a presentation through dance and having people witness it.”

For example, stepping or step dancing is a form of dance that uses the body like a percussion instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of steps, spoken words and hand claps. It is a style of dance created by African-American college students in the early to mid-20th century and became an integral part of Black fraternity and sorority life. Stepping created a unifying sense of creativity, historical connection to Africa and a release of pent-up emotions.

Step Afrika is the first professional company in the world dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Based in Washington, DC, it was founded in 1994 and launched in Johannesburg , South Africa six weeks after the election of Nelson Mandela as president of that country. The company performs all over the world and is particularly popular at U.S. college campuses. The performances are designed to be a lecture demonstration — allowing spectators to be enlightened as well as entertained — opening a dialogue on the many meanings of dance.

“The show that we take to colleges and have been doing since 2000 really discusses the history of stepping—both the traditional and more contemporary styles of stepping and also stepping’s connection to the continent of Africa, in particular for us South Africa,” says Step Afrika’s founder/executive director Brian Williams.

“Our show is never simply about dance,” he continues. “It is about teaching and sharing the history, the development of stepping on college campuses and the fact that all of our artists are college graduates.

“It demonstrates how folkloric dance can become mainstream while maintaining its integrity and original purpose.”

Step Afrika shows an evolution of stepping from its inception to the present. Scolieri says there are lessons to be learned about how dances are passed on from generation to generation and how dances adapt and transform. They provide a way of experiencing history from centuries ago to the present.

“It gets at some questions about politics and history from a very different perspective,” Scolieri says. Some students that take his courses have no background in dance. “They’re very excited about the possibility of talking about culture through these dances.”

At a time where many dance companies are laying off dancers or folding, Step Afrika employs 11 full-time dancers and teaching artists. In addition to performances, they also use dance as a means of teaching metro D.C. school children. They’ve created a curriculum designed to motivate and inspire, focusing on three words essential to the tradition of stepping and to success in life: teamwork, discipline and commitment.

Step Afrika has recently completed a run at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, where it presented the world premiere of a new piece, “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.” It is a collaboration with The Phillips Collection, which owns half the Migration Series and showcases the paintings in its permanent collection.

Lawrence (1917-2000) is one of the best known African-American painters of the 20th century. Throughout his career he depicted the history and struggle of African-Americans. The shapes and colors of Harlem, where he moved at age 13 and began studying art, influenced much of his work. His Migration Series, which is comprised of 60 pieces, was painted in the years 1940-41. It tells the story of the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North and Midwest, which took place in the early 20th century.

Step Afrika used 15 paintings from the Migration Series, echoing Lawrence’s work in both literal and subtle ways. Images were shown on screens behind the dancers—one depicting a painting as a whole and others zooming in on a detail. In some pieces, the dancers wore costumes replicating the painting. In the piece “Train” the dancers’ movements were evocative of the train journey in the painting.

“We’ve created a production that basically brings Jacob Lawrence’s paintings off the wall onto the stage,” says Williams. “It’s a classic example of how dance can be used as a platform not only to express individual feelings and thoughts, but history.”

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