Chuck Davis has been dancing his way around the world for more than 30 years. During his Navy days, he spent his furloughs driving long hauls to see Roland Kaye and his Latin American Ensemble perform in D.C. And before he knew it, the budding performer was smitten with all forms of the genre.
Today, Davis — the founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble — is considered America’s foremost choreographer of traditional African dance.
After majoring in dance and theater at Howard University, the Raleigh, N.C. native moved to New York, where he studied everything from ballet to jazz with nationally acclaimed masters. The mid-1960s found him teaching dance at South Bronx Community College — but the media’s drastic misrepresentation of African dance so disturbed Davis that, in 1968, he begat the first version of his stunningly successful troupe, then titled The Chuck Davis Dance Company.
Davis compares his role to that of a missionary: “I’m just following customs,” he says modestly. “In traditional societies, especially in Africa, all members of the community get involved in every event — dance, music, singing; recreational, secular and religious [events].”
So you can bet that he’s going to request — nay, require — your involvement in his upcoming Asheville show. As each concert begins, a lone performer appears onstage, dressed in the grand robes of tribal West Africa. In the Twi language of Ghana’s Akan people, the regal musician — his booming voice shaking the concert hall — will sing out, “Ago”(Ahhhh-go); i.e.: “Pay attention.” And the audience is asked to respond, “Ame” (Ahhhh-may): “I am listening.” The chant sets the mood, and a tone of heritage is instantly created.
Following the opening ritual, the dancers’ chanting and torrential drumming will split the night with sensual polyrhythms and spirited choreography. Then, Davis strolls onto the stage: His staggering charisma leaves no doubt that one is basking in the aura of a living legend. And once again, the mood changes, as Davis signals the audience to call out the names of those who have passed to the “ancestral home” — those “whose shoulders we now stand upon.” Expertly transforming the concert hall into the ceremonial Bantaba (dancing ground) of an African village, Davis always invites the crowd to join in the Mdjane (mah-jannee) — the fiery finale of this socio-musical gathering.
Be advised that a somber subtext — specifically, the woeful legacy of slavery in America — underlies these visually luscious, folkloric productions. And appropriately, Davis’ ambitious, far-reaching work has culled numerous awards, including a Congressional citation in 1988; the Distinguished North Carolinian Award (1980); and the Dance/Africa Award (1984). Despite their heavy theme, however, these pieces resonate with surprisingly diverse audiences:
“You’d think only African-Americans would show up, but we have a cross-section of people who are quickly registering for this incredible program,” enthuses YMI Cultural Center Director Oralene Simmons.
In perfect synch with his mission statement — “peace, love, respect for everybody” — Davis promotes dance as a medium to encourage interracial cooperation and cross-cultural understanding. As he puts it: “As long as we dance together, we have no time to hate.”