African dance takes hold deep in the heart of Texas
Dance is one way of making history a living, breathing and sometimes undulating phenomenon. Watching a room full of students practice the Kakilambe from the Baga ethnic group in Guinea, I was struck by two things: How lucky the students of Sam Houston State University (SHSU) are to have Mickie Mwanzia Koster, an accomplished African dance teacher and a professor of African History at Lone Star College, teaching them West African dance forms, and wonder at what else was going on in African dance in the Houston area.
With Black History Month upon us, now seems like a great time for that investigation. Houston has a significant history of African dance studies, from the former African Dance Society headed up by Madeleine Wright at Houston Community College to Kuumba House Dance Theatre, founded by my old friend Lindi Yeni, now under the leadership of Sarah Namulondo.
Intuitive African dance and drum culture offers classes in dance and drumming as well. SHSU Professor of Dance Cindy Gratz has placed world dance forms front and center in the curriculum, with classes with experts like Koster. Gratz, who can trace the lineage of any dance, was recently honored with a 2010 Dance Teacher Award from Dance Teacher Magazine.
Koster is part of a new wave of experts that includes Shani Henderson at Houston Community College Northwest-Spring Branch and Julie Bata and Maggie Lasher at Houston Community College (HCC), all of whom continue the legacy of the late Deborah Quanaim, who founded the World Dance Institute at HCC. These are not only dance teachers, but scholars who infuse their teaching with their vast research and experience.
Koster is not just teaching a dance, but re-enacting a sacred ritual.
"We evoke the energy and the spirit of the dance," she says. "Sometimes, it's hard for people to understand that African dance is an evolving form, it's dynamic and alive."
Recently, she set the Wolosodon: The Spirit of Freedom, a traditional dance from Mali influenced by the Wolloso people of West Africa, on the SHSU students. Koster has studied in Senegal and Ivory Coast, West Africa as well as Kenya, East Africa and performed with Dance Africa Dance Company and Diamano Coura West African Dance Company in Oakland, studying under the Senegalese Master artistic, Dr. Zak Diouf.
Having watched her students that day, I get it. We tend to think of world dance as something belonging in a museum, not an art form that is still happening. Koster peppers her dance classes with African history when appropriate, and on occasion, bursts out dancing when teaching African history.
"The students love it," she says. "African dance sparked my interest to learn more about African history.”
Later this month Koster heads to the Congolese Dance and Drum Camp in Hawaii where she will conduct research. "It's time for people to know and understand a more intimate Congolese story," she says.
Henderson completed a Fulbright in Ghana West Africa, where she performed with the National Dance Company of Ghana as well as with the Saakumu Dance Troupe, who will be performing this week at HCC Spring Branch. She teaches a class in African-American dance, which covers an interesting mix of genres, including Stepping, Katherine Dunham Technique, Praise Dance and West African dance.
Henderson is on a mission to connect the dots from the shout dance of abandon and improvisation that you might find in the Black Church, to the Haitian influences of Dunham, who she actually spent time with at The School at Jacob's Pillow.
"I try to connect the Africanist aesthetic present in all these forms," she says.
Henderson's synthesis of forms covers a depth and breadth of study, allowing students to experience dance as a living art form.
I had no trouble locating Bata's class: I could hear the thundering drums from the HCC parking lot. When I finally got there, I knew why, there were five expert drummers lining the front wall.
Bata, Houston's newest African dance educator, has a jazz and ballet background. She became exposed to West African forms at the same time as modern dance. "My first teacher was Garth Fagan, who is Jamaican, so there is overlap," says Bata, who teaches djembe style from the Mande people.
Bata has developed a distinct warm-up that orients the student rhythmically as well as physically. "Dance and rhythm are married," says Bata, who can easily jump on the drums during class if needed.
Visiting with these outstanding dance educators reminds me of the complexities and depth of even using a term such as "African dance."
"Even the term 'West African' dance seems too broad," Bata says. "Although I am not a historian, I try to give my students an idea of the geography and history of the region."
Sometimes Bata's students are shocked to learn that a blonde Caucasian is teaching them African dance. She likes to face their questions right away. But once the drums begin and Bata begins to move, concerns of her authenticity tend to melt away. Bata's clarity in both her own body and her detailed instructions to the students, speaks to the amount of rigour required to truly master this form.
"I feel so honored and blessed to study this work and be able to share it."
Dance highlights of Black History Month:
Urban Souls Dance Company presents Whispers from the Colored Section on Saturday at the Cullen Performance Hall on the University of Houston campus. Directed by Harrison Guy with music composed by Dr. Malcolm Rector of the University of St. Thomas, A Mile in Their Shoes takes the audience on a historical journey of the founding of the Gregory School and Houston’s Fourth Ward community.
Earthen Vessels - The Sandra Organ Dance Company presents Luck of the Draw, their 13th Annual Black History Month Performance, which includes works inspired by Scott Joplin, card games and dominoes, Saturday- Feb. 27 at Barnvelder.