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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

The History Of An American Dance Festival Project
By Gerald E. Myers, Ph.D.; Philosopher-in-residence and director Humanities and Public Education for the American Dance Festival.
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ADF program
ADF program.
"Free To Dance" the story of the African-American contribution to American modern dance,a three-part documentary premiered by DANCE IN AMERICA on Thirteen/WNET New York's GREAT PERFORMANCES in June 2001, is the product of an ambitious project undertaken over a decade ago by the American Dance Festival (ADF). That project -- "The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance" -- originated in the 1980s in conversations with one of ADF's faculty, the late Alvin McDuffie. He was concerned by his students' lack of familiarity with the artistic contributions of black choreographers and dancers. ADF was also concerned that many of the major dances by 20th-century African-American choreographers were in danger of being lost. Determined to stem the tide of this cultural amnesia, ADF decided to make the black tradition in American modern dance the focus of its ongoing Humanities and Public Education programs.

Humanities and Public Education, begun in the late 1970s and made possible by the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the North Carolina Humanities Committee, and The Rockefeller Foundation, have focused on the "humanistic" dimensions of dance. It is, after all, these dimensions that make dance something more than mere entertainment or recreation, and highlight other aspects besides physical technique. Human beings have always danced, and often for reasons other than fun and games.

What those reasons might be is of interest to the humanities, including such disciplines as history, philosophy, religion, literature, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the history and criticism of the arts. The ADF's Humanities and Public Education programs have been interdisciplinary explorations of the ways in which dance has served human beings -- personally, socially, and spiritually. Designed to reflect ADF's multifaceted mission, these programs have honored and preserved American modern dance classics, while enabling an ever-widening audience to appreciate them.

A series of ADF programs on "Dance, Culture and Humanities" and "Dances and Their People" has been presented at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina for over a decade. The participating scholars and choreographers, assisted by dancers illustrating their discussions, have shown how dance is a window on culture; how it provides insight into the life and times of a society or civilization. Ancestral, ritualistic, and folk dances have long been sources of information about the work habits, daily routines, and the beliefs and values of the cultures to which they belonged, and this was illustrated, in the case of Native American traditions, by a tribal group from North Carolina, with interpretations by Jamake Highwater. Another North Carolina group, the Asheville Cloggers, with the benefit of sociological and anthropological commentaries, showed how their dancing and music preserve modes of emotional expression from an Anglo-Saxon heritage.

"Dances and Their People" looked at dance styles and their cultural origins, including African American, Japanese, French, and Spanish. Scholars representing the humanities examined these traditions to determine how they reflect cultural traits, including class distinctions, sexual relationships, attitudes toward nature, and religious beliefs and practices. Whether these dance styles were strictly formalized and rule-governed or, to the contrary, allowed for freedom and spontaneity in their performance was a subject of discussion.

What is dance? What is its uniqueness among the arts? The Humanities and Public Education programs raised these questions for interdisciplinary dialogues. One summer series treated them from the perspectives of aesthetics and dance criticism. Philosophers, critics, and dancers compared answers to such questions and related issues, and the proceedings were published in PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAYS ON DANCE (edited by Gerald E. Myers and Gordon Fancher, published by Dance Horizons). Another summer series sought a closer understanding of the art of dance by bringing choreographers into discussions with scholars in the humanities. Historian Neil Harris collaborated with choreographer Bella Lewitzky, as did writer Benjamin De Mott with choreographer Alwin Nikolais for that purpose. In another instance, the focus was broadened as scholars William Bennett, Joel Fleishman, and Hilton Kramer investigated the connection between morality and all the arts.

The directors of ADF, Charles and Stephanie Reinhart, with funding from the North Carolina Arts Council, took the first step toward the current project by engaging Donald McKayle to launch his classic "Games," originally choreographed in New York City in 1951, with Chuck Davis' African-American Dance Ensemble, who were in-residence in Durham, North Carolina. This led to a Humanities-and-Dance program produced by ADF in Durham in June 1986, and funded by the North Carolina Humanities Committee and the Greater Durham Community Foundation. The program, held at North Carolina Central University, combined dancing from "Games" by Chuck Davis' company with a panel discussion with project scholars Joe Nash, Richard Powell, and Peter Wood. "Games" was also presented as part of ADF's 1986 performance schedule.

This pilot program was instrumental in ADF's being awarded, in 1987, a three-year Ford Foundation grant for similar reconstructions by other African-American choreographers to be performed by dance companies across the country. In the first year of the project (1987-1988), six dances -- Donald McKayle's "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder"; Eleo Pomare's "Las Desenamoradas"; Talley Beatty's "Congo Tango Palace"; and three solos by Pearl Primus, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "Strange Fruit," and "Hard Time Blues" -- were chosen by a panel of experts and taught to companies by these choreographers. Since ADF's project coincided with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's project preserving the dances of pioneer Katherine Dunham, it was appropriate for the ADF to focus on the choreographers named above. These works (along with "Games" from the pilot project) were performed in the 1988 ADF season by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Joel Hall Dancers, Chuck Davis' African-American Dance Ensemble, and dancers from Philadanco. Videotapes made of the dances included interviews with the choreographers about their inspiration and the intent of the dances.

essay list