The handoff of the baton to serve as griot (historian/storyteller) and director of DanceAfrica DC 2017 had been planned for this year, as the artistic director and founder of the national festival, Charles “Baba Chuck” Davis, was to pass on his duties to Mama Sylvia Soumah, co-director of the festival and founder of Coyaba Dance Theater.
But instead, on May 14, beloved Baba Chuck, whose presence was a mandatory part of the annual event that celebrates African dance, music and culture, transitioned to the ancestors, turning this year’s festival into a lively memorial for the man who made it all happen.
In the Saturday night concert, “Let Your Voice Be Heard!” the Dance Place family, Coyaba Dance Theater, the Dance Place Step Team and What’s Going On The Marvin Gaye Project; and visiting troupe Ezibu Muntu out of Richmond, Virginia, paid homage in a series of poignant remembrances of Davis, whose opening lines — “Ago?” with the response “Ame” —were repeated time and time again throughout the night.
The evening event was the culmination of the daylong outdoor festival that featured music, dance, the marketplace and children’s activities. The closer began with the pouring of libation to the sound of prayers in Ashanti and Yoruba by Mama Makini Nilwambieni, acknowledging the ancestors as Baba Chuck would have when opening the night of energetic drumming and gravity-defying dance.
A film showing Davis teaching master dance classes, presiding over the performances and enjoining people to show “love, peace and respect for everybody” followed before the Dance Place Step Team graced the stage, dressed in white and bearing candles while a photo montage of Baba Chuck was projected in the background.
”What’s Going On The Marvin Gaye Project” presented “Oshun” choreographed by Soumah, followed by another piece she arranged for Coyaba Dance Theater, “Mami Wata,” both works honoring the West African deities that rule over rivers and the ocean.
The African ritual of wearing white to a burial was reflected in the costumes of the first three troupes. Women clad in flowing white dresses performed Coyaba’s “Prayer for Baba Chuck,” choreographed by the troupe and retiring Dance Place co-director Deborah Riley. The solemn and reverent tribute to the legendary dancer and choreographer featured a montage of Davis in his usual stance, long arms raised above to embrace the universe in regal African garb. At one point, he seemed to grasp Soumah’s hand while she performed solo under his gaze.
Also in the tradition of African funeral rites, his life’s work was recognized by Richmond-based dance troupe Ezibu Muntu with upbeat drumming and joyous celebration of Baba Chuck’s love for traditional African culture.
”We would travel to Durham, [North Carolina, where Davis resided] and celebrate Kwanzaa with him and also his birthday,” which fell on New Year’s Day, said Babadunjo Olaguke’, one of the co-directors of Ezibu Muntu. “He so loved the traditional African dances, and thought it was important to keep them alive.”
Their homage to the man, titled “UKUUNKI II: Embracing SANKOFA,” opened with a ritual that saw a poster from Davis’ historical African-American Dance Ensemble, placed on the stool that he would sit on while presiding over the festival. Another stool sat offstage draped in white West African fabric with a singular candle burning in his memory.
Ezibu Muntu’s performance quickly transitioned from a respectful memorial to a raucous, airborne display of seemingly impossible leaps, twirls and intricate footwork and earth-shaking drumming, with the drummers donning green T-shirts adorned with Davis’ image.
Davis founded the festival 40 years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, bringing it to Washington’s Dance Place a decade later. Every year, the weekend after Memorial Day, the festival begins with a series of Master Classes, culminating in weekend outdoor performances, an African marketplace and indoor performances with guest dance troupes.
At the end of the performances, Soumah chanted Davis’ favorite saying, demonstrated his unique handclap and gestures and noted how he loved the “Lamba” from the Malinke people of West Africa. The dance is one of “spirit appreciation” and also one performed for the griot of the culture, who holds the history of the people.
And even as the curtain fell and the house lights came on, the dancing and drumming continued for the man who taught so many to love Africa, its culture and its peoples.