The National Museum of Dance had such a great success with its Black History Month Celebration last year that it is hosting another on Sunday.
Last year’s focus was on African-Americans’ contribution to the arts. This year, the museum has narrowed that focus to the influence and impact of African-Americans on one art form in particular — American contemporary dance.
“It will be like watching American history live in front of them,” said dance teacher and choreographer Tina Baird, owner of Saratoga Jazz Tap, who will be presenting a portion of the program.
Stephen Tyson, a visual artist and adjunct professor at Schenectady County Community College, will preside over a multimedia presentation accompanied by live performances that will give visitors a rich overview of the subject matter.
Back again this year to start and end the program is a gospel group with praise dancers from the Mount Olive Southern Missionary Baptist Church in Albany.
“From my point of view, this is a spiritual story, so it’s appropriate to start out with the church,” Tyson said. “The spiritual aspect deals with basically a representation of this ever-abiding source of strength that people feel through the hardships of life,” Praise dancers will dance while the gospel choir sings.
Tyson then plans to give a chronological view of the history, beginning with Africans before they came to the Americas. Using video and photos, he will discuss the role of dance in various cultures in Africa, pointing out that Africa is not monolithic but made up of hundreds of different ethnic groups and traditions. Dance played an important role in the Africans’ sense of identity and community, Tyson said. “It’s this idea of dance as a way to forge and celebrate individual and collective identity through creative expression.”
Black History Month Celebration
WHERE: National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 2-5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free.
MORE INFO: 584-2225 ext. 3009; www.dancemuseum.org
French caribbean impact
During the presentation, textile artist and dance instructor Francelise Dawkins, owner of Feneex Boutique and Gallery in Saratoga Springs, will discuss the French Caribbean influence on American dance. She’ll engage the audience in some modified dancing at their seats as well as the call-and-response singing popular in the French Caribbean.
Dawkins will also demonstrate and show video of a type of dance she created called “Kalabash.” The name is derived from the word “calebasse” which means “large gourd.” “The metaphor is that it’s the gourd filled up with all the delicious rhythms of the world from the African diaspora,” Dawkins said. It includes elements of jazz and African dancing.
Dawkins notes that drums were not suppressed in the Caribbean Islands as they were in North America, so drumming could be a part of dance. “The people who were enslaved and brought to North America didn’t have their drums, but they did create,” she said.
This segues into the way that African-Americans began to dance in the United States. They developed “Pattin’ Juba,” a style of dance that involves stomping and slapping and patting the arms, chest and cheeks to make different rhythms. This type of dance became very popular in the United States in the 19th century.
Roots of tap
Baird, along with Rebecca Kim, will present a section of the program about tap dancing. They’ll talk about the roots of tap as a combination of African and Irish cultures coming together and then how the art form evolved alongside jazz.
They will highlight the great names in tap dancing, including John Bubbles of the famous vaudeville duo “Buck and Bubbles” and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Baird points out that Robinson “brought tap up on its toes,” and she’ll have a video clip to demonstrate the difference between Bubbles’ and Robinson’s styles.
The two will talk about the soft-shoe style popular in the late 1940s and will dance a soft-shoe version developed by Charles Honi Coles and Charles Atkins, who danced as a team. They’ll also perform three other dances and talk about how as jazz became more modern so did tap dancing, with dancers like Savion Glover and Gregory Hines, the latter known for improvising rhythms on stage.
Included in the presentation is Brenda Bufalino, who created the American Tap Dance Orchestra. She assigned orchestral parts, such as a brass section, to different groups of dancers who performed together in single pieces using their feet in place of brass and other instruments.
Tyson will continue to present the history of blacks’ contributions to dance with discussion and video of dances like the Lindy Hop, which was popularized in the 1930s, as well as the “Moon Walk” that was developed in the mid-20th century and made popular decades later by Michael Jackson.
Other presenters include John Beckem as well as his wife, Yonka Beckem, who will talk about the international fusion of different dance traditions.
Reggae enthusiast Jahvtz Blanton of Saratoga Springs will talk about reggae music in relation to dance and the Jamaican origins of the Electric Boogie, a dance that became a hit in the 1980s and remains a staple in line dance circles.
Bringing the history right up to the current day is the Skidmore College audition-based hip-hop jazz group Rithmos, which will perform one of the dances that members choreographed themselves. “We’re going to show how it is now and how we embody those earlier dance forms,” said Skidmore student and group member Corry Ethridge of North Carolina.
Tyson points out that some of the dances included in the presentation are part of the Whitney Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance, and visitors will be able to learn more about that history by viewing the exhibition.
He hopes that people will not only be able to appreciate the links between African-inspired music and dance as it has manifested in various forms in American dance, but also how these are woven into the American experience in general.
“We can’t separate out the African-American experience from the American experience,” he said. “In a sense, I think people will come away with a greater sense of how we are all essentially one. There are different ways of expressing that, but we’re part of a larger fabric of what America is.”