Detroit is a city you have to participate in to begin to understand. As someone with a background in dance, I have more recently become curious about the role that dance serves in a community.
Not only its general oneness, joy, and health benefits, but particularly African style dance, and what that means to so many people that live in the city, a city that is more than 80 percent African American.
African dance is a total body articulation that intends to move societies into healthier social patterns. It aids dancers to evolve their values, helps people to work, mature, to praise or criticize members of the community. And it certainly has a place in Detroit.
“If you can’t travel [to understand cultural origins], get on the dance floor,” said Rhonda Greene, founder and executive director of Heritage Works.
So on to the dance floor I went. Here are three notable dance organizations in the Detroit community that practice African style movement as an offering to ancestors, as a way of celebrating, and also to give thanks to life.
Alive and operating for 15 years this coming December, Heritage Works has evolved from what was originally African Dance Works. They changed their name to open out their mission as a non-profit with a passion for equity issues and to work to counter misconceptions about African Americans.
The organization is centered on four oral traditions: dance, folklore, drums, and adornment. The dances are guided by traditional West African drums, Djembe and the Dundun, and dancers perform four ensembles each month. Heritage Works also brings arts education into Detroit Public Schools, and participating schools in Oakland county as well.
“The rhythm originates from the work songs sang by African women,” said Greene. “Their rhythmic movement during work, and the songs they sang, fed the community spiritually, and developed a family of rhythms.”
Its main purpose is in connecting to cultural roots and uplifting community. This year, they are among three nominees for the Knight Arts Challenge. If they do win the award, Greene plans to take her dancers to Senegal West Africa to experience African dance and music traditions within authentic settings.
“Our dancers are committed to diversifying their vocabulary. You can’t recreate what you can see in an authentic setting,” said Greene.
She hopes the trip will inspire changes in perspective, and that her students will go on to teach other kids what they learned abroad about African dance origins. To support, text ART3 to 22333. http://www.heritageworks.org/
House of Bastet
Wild Spirit Dance Company leads the House of Bastet in women’s empowerment through dancing. They are a dance studio in Detroit that not only practices traditional West African dance, but also, hip hop, fitness, Zumba, Samba, yoga, and other cultural dances.
They offer their services to local schools, as well as after school programs, and gather together as sisters each month to talk about culture and women who have inspired them, like American Modern Dancer Katherine Dunham and Singer Tina Turner. They offer bachelorette parties, too!
As I watched them dance, it was very windy and hard to hear the music, but all they had to say was, “just a moment ladies, lets take a moment to celebrate our ancestors. She is happy. Give thanks.”
See Hetheru House, Patti Dukes Jordan, Tene Dismuke, Nicole Carter, and Aisha Ellis performing the Songba at the African World Festival on August 16 at the Charles Wright Museum.
Body Rhythm Dance Theatre
Shirley Bryant is the owner and dance instructor at Body Rhythm Dance Theatre in Southfield. She is a deep woman who has found meaning for who she is through dancing.
“I dance African dance because something about its rhythm and movement causes my spirit to weep,” said Bryant. Before she found African style dance, Bryant contacted the remaining family members who were slave owners to her own family, trying to trace down her roots. She received no reply, which drove her to find a connection to African movement that satisfied her longing.
When I arrived to interview her, she invited me to dance with her and the rest of her students in her weekly community African dance class first. Kinetic learning can hit a little bit harder than just observational learning. She didn’t even give me a moment to think about what I was doing.
“I don’t have a skirt like the rest of you do!” I said.
“You are fine. Join us.”
The rest of the class was vibrant but shared its own moments of difficulty.
African dancing is exercise for the spirit and the body. You must work. Like the House of Bastet, a Djembe played in the background as Shirley led our movement. Wide swinging arms, deep grounded steps into the floor.
Body Rhythm Dance Theatre offers rates for low-income dancers at $30 per month, as well as $8 for drop-ins. There are also drumming classes for children and other classes throughout the week.
The African World Festival opens this weekend sharing sights and sounds of African American History in forms of poetry, arts and crafts, African drumming and dance, ethnic foods. Many of the dancers who practice at this studio will be dancing there, too.
Perhaps dancing could be a way to get in touch with our neighbors. To explore a culture we should all know more about, and as a gateway to helping understand how to bridge our gaps as a community.