Sunday, July 31, 2011

USA Africa Dialogue Series - A Gift to Africa

A Gift to Africa
Published: Mon, 2011-08-01 19:19
Dr Glenvile Ashby

Peggy Schwartz and Chuck Davis, founder and director of Dance Africa.
She lit up with mention of the Urban Bush Women dance company, and
later explained Bushasche—the War Dance, a signature high intensity
dance number with origins in the Congo. The warriors, it is said
"challenge the God of War and destroy him. By his destruction there
will be peace." She mentioned Alphonse Cimber, one the most
influential drummers in the New York African dance circuit. And Chuck
Davis, the founder of Dance Africa, a leading figure in African dance
in the US. Then, she paused and reflected—her words were instructive
and insightful. The woman at the centre of this discourse on
Emancipation is Peggy Schwartz, professor of dance at the prestigious
University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also founding artistic
director of the Sankofa Dance Project: Celebrating African Traditions
in American Dance.

Equally important is her awareness of Trinbagonian culture, having
stayed on the twin island while researching The Dance Claimed Me, a
biography chronicling the artistic contribution of the late
Trinidadian icon, Pearl Primus. In an emotional interview Professor
Schwartz discussed pedagogy and African culture, her enthusiasm
tempered by the naked reality of Africa's internecine strife,
political turmoil and under-development. "It's ironic, a kind of
disconnect between the cultural boon in the US and the Caribbean, and
what is going on in Africa," she said. "There is a renaissance of
African traditions in the US. Dance and culture are now being whole-
heartedly embraced at the elementary, secondary and university levels
throughout the US." It is a view shared by Joan Finkelstein, director
of dance programmes at the New York City Department of Education, who
earlier stated that the department's "Blueprint for teaching and
learning in dance calls for a broadly inclusive curriculum, and
various African dance traditions are part of the scope."

As T&T celebrates Emancipation Day, Schwartz believes that the society
should reflect on the significance of dance as an instructive and
educational tool with lasting social implications. "I have seen the
incredible impact African culture has had at elementary, secondary and
university levels." She cited Pearl Primus' work as "exemplary," and
the standard for educational institutions. "What she did, and what is
being done in the US, is develop curricula that teachers can follow.
It is important that the lecture-demonstration format be instituted
because it really facilitates the learning process." Schwartz spoke of
the dignity and beauty of the African heritage which she stated
"should not be exoticised." "What I have learned as an instructor is
that African dance and culture should not be limited to the stage.
There is an important place for it at all levels of expression—the
classroom, business and places of worship. "I believe that cultural
preservation is the most authentic way of affirming and celebrating
who you are," she said, recalling her days in Trinidad when she was
"taken aback" by the myriad of cultural expressions.
"The wonderful aspect of Emancipation Day and other ethnic holidays on
the island is that sense of unity amid diversity."

She later explained the homogeneity of African culture. "You just
cannot separate dance, music, and rhythm from spirituality. Neither
can you teach African culture without understanding its importance to
individual and social development." She defined Emancipation as
"retrieving the roots of one's identity toward enlightenment," as she
decoded the essence of African dance and its universal attributes.
"The very rituals of dance contain the social order. The fundamental
movement of African dance is very profound. "It teaches who to
respect, who to love, who to fear; how to relate to your family, your
peers and the society; in turn, how the family relates to the society,
and the society to the environment and the universe. Everything has
its place." She went further, describing the US and the Caribbean as a
repository for African culture, a place that has preserved the
traditions, that can now serve to emancipate a troubled Africa in a
tangible way. Schwartz spoke of Pearl Primus with affection, referring
to her as "one of the progenitors of Pan Africanism," and lauded her
establishment of the Konama Kende School in Liberia in 1960, with the
aim of bridging Africa with its Diaspora and the rest of the world.

However, Primus' vision to institutionalise the short-lived Earth
Theatre—a school for Caribbean, American, and African Arts was never
realised. Schwartz though was not daunted, and called for greater
transcontinental cooperation. Mindful of the many disharmonious forces
at work on the continent, she called for more cultural and educational
investment from the US and Caribbean. "This is about gratitude and
giving back to a place that has given so much. This is what African
values are about."
There was silence. Professor Schwartz had only now understood the
enormity of her words.

Dr Glenville Ashby
New York foreign correspondent
The Guardian Media Group

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