‘Little Africa’ Comes to BAM for DanceAfrica 2024

'The Origin of Communities / A Calabash of Cultures' will be at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House beginning on May 24.

Dancers perform on an orange lit stage in front of a group of live musicians playing traditional drums
The National Dance Company of Ghana in DanceAfrica 2023’s ‘Golden Ghana: Adinkra, Ananse, and Abusua.’ Nir Arieli

“They did a thing for the ancestors,” Abdel R. Salaam told Observer, “and then the rains came.” He was talking about his recent trip to visit the Baka people in the Dja Faunal Reserve, located in southeastern Cameroon. “So, we’re sitting there in the rain and they’re dancing in the rain. And then they pull us up and we dance a little bit with them. This was not a company. This is just the people, right? Dancing. They started dancing at like six o’clock, six-thirty, and stopped dancing after midnight… And I thought, how do I translate this experience to the stage?”

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Salaam has been DanceAfrica’s artistic director since 2016, taking over for the late and great Chuck Davis (1937-2017) who founded the festival in 1977. Now in its 47th year, the nation’s largest African dance festival will put the spirit of Cameroon in the spotlight with its program The Origin of Communities / A Calabash of Cultures from May 24 through May 27 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

A man wearing a yellow jacket and embroidered sash clasps his hands while speaking
Abdel R. Salaam. Julieta Cervantes

The first DanceAfrica in 1977 is the stuff of legends. According to Mikki Shepard, the festival’s original producer, there were elephant and camel rides in the streets. Alex Haley, author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, walked into the lobby at intermission and said he could speak for ten minutes. He ended up talking about history and legacy and why DanceAfrica’s journey was important for forty-five minutes to an over-capacity theater without air conditioning on a sweltering hot day in June.

Salaam performed at that first festival and has been involved with it ever since. He explained that, though the first few years featured only African American dance companies, Davis soon began featuring international artists as well. Around the 24th year, it became an annual ritual to go to the continent or someplace in the diaspora and find companies that are invited to perform. Which brings us back to this year’s pick: Cameroon, known as “Little Africa.”

A group of children stand before a seated adult in a smoky forest
Behind the scenes in Camaroon. Tony Turner

“I’m still reeling inside from it,” said the festival’s producer Charmaine Warren (who is also a performer, historian, and writer) about the production staff’s trip to Cameroon. “It was beautiful, being with the Baka. And that’s part of what Abdel has recreated… I hope the audience will feel they’re taking the trip with us. I’m excited about it.” Warren, from Jamaica, was a downtown dancer (“upside-down, I like to joke”), not a traditional dancer, so she loves being able to learn more about the many cultures and movement styles within African dance. “But Abdel?” she added, “He knows. It’s his bones. Inside his bones.”

Harlem-born Salaam is, indeed, a renowned traditional African dancer and choreographer (he danced with Davis and started his award-winning company Forces of Nature Dance Theatre in 1981), but he also has a wide-ranging multi-disciplinary background that makes him an ideal artistic director for a festival like this. His grandfather was a comedian and used to tour with stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. “I was always backstage at The Apollo,” he told me, “watching.” He studied music at Music & Art (now part of the famed LaGuardia High School of Music & The Arts), did costume illustration with designer Judy Dearing and even had his own clothing store. He has always been interested in all the aspects of the theatrical experience—the sounds, the lights, the costumes, the movement. He has always been able to see the whole.

In an attempt to recreate Cameroon for the audience, Salaam worked with designers Al Crawford (lights), David Margolin Lawson (sound), and Jasiri AU Kafele (set) to transform the stage into a rainforest. “It won’t have the density of that rainforest in Cameroon,” he said, almost apologetically. “It was so thick sometimes we couldn’t even walk through it! But we created something.” Something tells me that Salaam’s humble ‘something’ will be extraordinary.

Unfortunately, the Cameroonian dance troupe that Salaam and Warren auditioned during their trip couldn’t come due to last-minute visa issues. Luckily, the DanceAfrica team then had the opportunity to meet Cameroonian-born, Brooklyn-based Mafor Mambo Tse and her company Siren – Protectors of the Rainforest, who will be this year’s featured guest artists.

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“Everything we do is to remind people of the Congo forest, where we come from,” Tse told Observer. Though Tse herself has performed at BAM Café and has hosted public performances in the streets during DanceAfrica, this will be her Pan-African company’s BAM stage debut. “It sometimes bothers me that people are not much more in tune with it and understanding it,” she added, often bringing the conversation back to the rainforest and its conservation, “but then I get it. It’s ‘not our problem’. You know, like, right now all this pollen and all these allergies that people have was ‘not our great-grandparents’ problem’.”

Her company will perform traditional dances from Cameroon. One of the pieces, “Me Khu Neh Ni Ngone” (My Feet Are the Drum), is a Juju dance from Bamenda (“Juju has a lot to do with ancestral spirits. Emulating them.”) about the migration of the Mankon people. “You know, we went through several countries before we settled in Bamenda, in Cameroon,” she explained. “So, a lot of what you’re going to see on stage, they’re traveling movements.” Another piece will be in the Bikutsi style from Yaounde (“Bikutsi is about a celebration of life. It’s hugely a celebration of life.”).

Dancers perform on an orange lit stage in front of a group of live musicians playing traditional drums
The Billie Holiday Theatre’s Youth Arts Academy Dance Ensemble in DanceAfrica 2023’s ‘Golden Ghana: Adinkra, Ananse, and Abusua.’ Nir Arieli

The children of The Billie Holiday Theatre’s youth dance academy will also perform a Bikutsi dance that Tse taught them. Working with the kids was amazing, she said, because they’re not ‘blocked’ yet. “They’re moving. Their chest is going a mile a minute. Their hips are going a mile a minute. They don’t have as much shame as the adults.”

Tse went on to explain that the Cameroonian style of dance is “not… how would I say… conservative. There’s an understanding of your body and the different movements it can make, especially in the central region.” She has noticed that many Americans are uncomfortable with the movements, and cling to “that Western I-cannot-move-my-central-body” attitude. “Because it’s uncouth. even though I’m telling them it’s normal.” She joked that working with dancers with ballet training is especially challenging. “They do not move their glutes at all!” she laughed. “And you have to literally sit there and be like, it’s okay. The butt is a part of your body. It’s fine. Yup, it can jiggle. Yup, it’s okay.”

There are other differences between the Central African and the West African dance styles that many people in the U.S. (including myself) are more familiar with. Central African dance is more polyrhythmic (“They start with one timing and end up with another timing.”), the dancers start on the “one” instead of the “and,” and there are fewer drum breaks to cue the dancers to new sections  (“There’s just a switch in rhythm that allows you to understand that, okay you know what? It’s time to go. Time to switch movements.”).

Dancers in flowing pink and orange costumes on a dark bare stage
DanceAfrica Spirit Walkers in DanceAfrica 2023’s ‘Golden Ghana: Adinkra, Ananse, and Abusua.’ Nir Arieli

Tse went on, “I typically tell people, when they ask me how can you tell the difference in styles, that most North African traditional dances involve the head. When you come down East and West, they do a lot of lateral movements and jumps and all this other stuff. When you get to Central Africa, we’re all about the hips. We’re all about our waist. The center. And then when you get down to South Africa, they’re all about footwork.”

Her pieces will be accompanied by live drumming and the Afro-Cuban vocal/percussion trio Women Of The Calabash, who will play throughout the program.

The festival has always included both traditional and contemporary works. Salaam said, “While it is important to always—and I do believe this—honor the ancestors, and honor the elders, and have an element of the festival which is dedicated to its roots, it’s also important to balance that with the fact that we’re in a contemporary world.”

Salaam’s choreography, performed by the DanceAfrica Spirit Walkers, is without a doubt contemporary. “Two of the dancers are travelers. Like we were. And one of them falls asleep and has a vision. It’s like a dream, so anything can happen. She’s having visions and dreams, it’s got house music to it, you know what I mean?” Contemporary.

While every group involved has their moment alone on stage, the groups also come together to perform throughout the program. “It’s about community,” Warren said. “An intergenerational weaving.” The festival is, truly, intergenerational. The youngest performer is eight years old, and the eldest member of the Council of Elders is eighty-two.

DanceAfrica Festival 2024 will not have elephant and camel rides, but there will be dance classes, workshops, late-night parties, film screenings, an art installation, a Council of Elders Roundtable and an incredible outdoor bazaar. There will be a rainforest. And there will be performances unlike anything most of us have ever seen before.

“I think every year in addition to the art and the production itself,” Salaam said, “what excites me is walking out and seeing thousands of people coming together to celebrate themselves, to experience and honor the place that was the mother and father of civilization. And how, for this very brief moment, for these four days, it comes to the streets of Brooklyn.”

The Origin of Communities / A Calabash of Cultures is at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on May 24 at 7:30 p.m., May 25 at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m., May 26 at 3 p.m. and May 27 at 3 p.m.

‘Little Africa’ Comes to BAM for DanceAfrica 2024