Diversity through dance
When the first African slaves were brought to America more than four centuries ago, they brought with them a colorful array of music and dance unique to their distant culture. Although much of the movements taught in today’s dance studios bear little resemblance to those early dances, some of their roots can still be traced to African origins.Lea Chapman, a dance teacher with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver, believes it is important to remind people all peoples of those precious roots."It’s where our history started," Chapman says.Friends of the Dance, an area non-profit organization whose mission is to promote local dance and dancers, agrees with Chapman’s sentiment. As part of Black History Month this February, Friends of the Dance invited Chapman to come teach the students at the VailValley Academy of Dance in Edwards some traditional African dances."Since we’re in such a diverse world, we wanted to show (the students) a more diverse spectrum of dance not just of ballet and tap but of the world," says JoAnn Moore, president of Friends of the Dance.Last Wednesday, Feb. 12, Chapman arrived with two of her favorite drummers, Stephan Griffin and Michael Wilhite, to conduct two hour-and-a-half classes for dance students ranging from seven years old to adults."I hope to show (the students) a sense of community through this art form," says Chapman.Barefoot, dressed in traditional African dress of a flowered wrap skirt and headscarf, with a cowry shell belt slung low around her hips, Chapman greeted her first class of wide-eyed seven- to 11-year-olds.The rules for African dance, she announced to her young audience is to "First, have fun. And second, have fun!"Chapman explains to her eager listeners that much of black dance in America today focuses on the dances that evolved after the slaves arrived. "What you see on TV began after the slaves’ passage. I always say, remember there is a part before what you see."She went on to explain that these early African dances were originally referred to as "ballet style," although they are far different than the ballet these students typically perform at Vail Valley Academy of Dance.Then Chapman, who used to perform with the renowned Cleo Parker Robinson dance ensemble herself, led the little ones in a musical warm-up, which introduced some basic West African dance movements.No eye wandered as the students watched Chapman’s every step, their faces pictures of both fascination and concentration as they tried to replicate the unfamiliar movements.As a classically trained dancer, Chapman understands all too well. Traditional West African dance is a much freer, more intuitive dance form than modern day ballet or tap. Dancers today are typically taught to count the measures of music to know when to performwhich step. But with West African dance, it is the African drums, which tell the dancer when to start, stop or change a movement."I remember training in Denver as a young dancer," Chapman said before the class. "This is what I longed for and it was not available at all."Wilhite and Griffin skillfully beat out intertwined rhythms on the Djimba drum, first carried into battle by warriors in the 1700s, and the set of Doun Doun drums, with their variable ranges."African dance," explained Chapman, "is about being able to step outside your personal thoughts. In African dance, you have to listen to the music. Dance does not exist without the song,"Despite their avid concentration, it was evident the young dancers were enjoying the unusual dance steps particularly as Chapman’s movements grew freer, heads and arms swinging to the driving, irresistible drumbeats.Chapman then taught the students a traditional West African welcome song and dance from Liberia and Nigeria. "Fanga Alafia, As As, As As," loosely translated means, "Welcome. Peace and well being, so be it."The children quickly learned the words, singing them so beautifully and stirringly it brought tears to the eyes of several of the onlookers present. The movements to the welcome song tell a story, too. Forinstance, when the dancers touch their hearts and open their arms they are saying, "Welcome, from the heart."As the girls caught on to every nuance of the slow, eloquent movements, they added the song, shouting it enthusiastically to the rafters.Many of the older students in the second class already were familiar with Chapman and her teachings. Once a year, Friends of the Dance sends the Vail Youth Ballet Company members (a performing arm of the studio) down to Denver to take classes with studios there, such as the Colorado Ballet and Cleo Parker Robinson."We already knew what an extraordinary and inspirational instructor Lea was," Moore explains. "When we knew it was her coming up here, we were ecstatic."Cleo Parker Robinson Dance has a two-tiered program in Denver, which not only includes technical training for dancers, it includes an outreach program to local schools. Chapman is frequently asked to give one- and three-day workshops at Denver area elementary ormiddle schools."They always request West African dance and drums," she says.Friends of the Dance paid for the West African dance classes in Edwards through monies earmarked for educational programs for the valley’s young dancers."Our platform is to educate through dance," says Moore. "This is one way we can do it.Black History Month was celebrated at the Vail Valley Academy of Dance in other ways, too. Short biographies on famous black dancers from the early days to the present such as the Nicholas Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines were posted on doors."Many of them are still alive," Moore says. "Just think how many of the dancers today where influenced by dancers back then."Younger classes also watched old Shirley Temple movies, with her famed dance partner and choreographer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, while older students watched his biography."Living up here the children are so sheltered. This is something the children just don’t get. We are not exposed to black culture or African dance."
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