Dancing the African Diaspora

Dancing the African Diaspora conference provides “perfect timing” for scholars of black dance

(Duke Arts Journal, March 4, 2014, by Jennifer Prather)

people in class room


Samba and tap dance. Line dance and hip hop. Capoeira and twerking. These are all dance styles that have their origins in the African diaspora and were topics for the scholars, teachers and artists that attended the Dancing the African Diaspora: Theories of Black Performance conference at Duke University.

The conference, which convened February 7-9, 2014, sought to provide space for an interdisciplinary and international discussion that captured the variety of topics, approaches, and methods that constitute Black Dance Studies.

​​Thomas F. DeFrantz ​

Dancing the African Diaspora: Theories of Black Performance was organized by by the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD). The Collegium is a collaboration of dance scholars, dancers and teaching artists brought together by Thomas F. DeFrantz, Professor of African and African American Studies and Dance.

CADD found a welcoming home at Duke, where two other members, Ava LaVonne Vinesett and Andrea E. Woods Valdés, explore African diaspora dance as a resource and method of aesthetic identity.

Featuring 70 presenters from the U.S. and abroad, DeFrantz said the conference was a way to gather scholars, educators, practitioners and artists together to share ideas, research and movement in a way to understand both the historic connectivities and contemporary practice of black dance.

"It's an opportunity to reflect upon and mobilize what we know about these dances and consider black performance in all of its idioms," DeFrantz said.

The conference offered a mix of research on historical and intellectual approaches to the African Diaspora with workshops and performances which DeFrantz said made it a culturally rich experience.

Ann Mazzocca, assistant professor of dance at Christopher Newport University, agreed, saying she had been to many national dance conferences that offered far less by way of the actual practice of dance.

"This conference has had more actual dancing than any other conference I’ve been to, and I’ve really enjoyed that,” Mazzocca said.

CADD member and dance historian John O. Perpener III said, for him, the importance of the conference was that it created a space for African American scholars and artists to come together to discuss issues and ideas that were specifically relevant to their own work.  As a dance scholar, he often attends national dance history organizations and conferences, Perpener said. “But sometimes my experience is […] that our representation at some of those conferences is very slim, so this is amazing because we kind of like have a space of our own.”

Stafford C. Berry, Jr., a dancer and choreographer for the Berry & Nance Dance Project, echoed that sentiment, enjoying the opportunity to be around like minds, meeting and being reunited with people studying the African diaspora at various levels, from the grassroots to the collegiate.  Berry said the timing was perfect for this conference and he had been feeling the need for it for some time.  “It’s perfect timing because there are enough of us doing things that mean something different than in other environments,” Berry said. “There are several of us now in key positions so the need has been heightened, and I’m glad Tommy DeFrantz and the folks on the executive committee have convened us all."

Dr. Baba Chuck Davis
Dr. Baba Chuck Davis

Dr. Baba Chuck Davis opened the conference with a drumming invocation, a call to all participants to be welcome in the space for an exchange of scholarship and inspiration.  Davis is one of the foremost teachers and choreographers of tradition African dance in America.

Other special guests to the conference were Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the Urban Bush Women dance company; Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, former Bgirl and director of the documentary “All the Ladies Say”; and Dr. Kariamu Welsh, director of the Institute for African Dance Research and Performance and creator 33 years ago of the Pan African contemporary Umfundalai dance technique.  Urban Bush Women spent a two-week residency at Duke, culminating in their performance of Hep Hep Sweet Sweet and Walking with ’Trane on the Saturday night of the conference. (Hear interview on WUNC-FM "The State of Things")

Zollar also participated in a panel with DeFrantz, CADD board member Takiyah Nur Amin and Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African American Studies and host of the “Left of Black” podcast. The four discussed “The Future of Black Dance,” both looking toward the future and hoping that the history of these dances and what they stood for would not be forgotten. 

Rebecca Holmes, junior majoring in dance, economics and education at Duke, said she wanted to be a part of the conference to learn more about the history and context of the African diaspora. “It’s really important to know that dance is not just movement – there’s so much more behind it and this conference is allowing me to learn that from people who are studying this, amazing dancers and amazing scholars,” Holmes said.

Ava LaVonne Vinesett
Ava LaVonne Vinesett

Vinesett, associate professor of the practice of Dance, summed up her experience of the conference by saying, “We had such an incredible range of presented works, and embodied scholarship occupied a central role in the conference. Both the need and desire to celebrate the numerous voices comprising “Dancing the African Diaspora” were urgent and relative to all in attendance. Black masculinity, poetics, living histories, the documentation and archiving of creative work as a proof of one’s practice, authenticity, agency, dance as a catalyst for social change, transcultural healing practices, ancestral memories, choreographing liminality, curricular innovation, teaching pedagogy and philosophies, ‘blackness’, aesthetics, gender, and the role of our elders... These are several topics individuals discussed in an effort to articulate their connection to the African Diaspora and move the tradition of embodied scholarship forward.”

Said Dance Program Director, Keval Khalsa: "Just want to extend my CONGRATULATIONS and gratitude once again to the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD) Executive Committee for an amazing weekend of scholarship, performance, workshops, dialogue, and inspiration.   Through your collective efforts, the Conference was an open, respectful, sacred and spirited container that welcomed all participants, from the amazing keynote speakers to faculty, dance educators, students, etc.  I loved the intergenerational span -- from babes in arms to elders.  Everyone that I met/reconnected with expressed their gratitude for the conference and the opportunity to be part of it.  Many, many and deeply heartfelt thanks for ALL your work!!"

View informal photos of the conference taken by photographer, Alec Himwich.  http://www.alechimwich.com/Dance/Dance-Events/Conference-on-Dancing-the


Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD); Duke University Humanities Writ Large Grant; SLIPPAGE: Performance|Culture|Technology in residence at Duke; and the Corporeality Working Group, the Dance Program, and African and African American Studies Department of Duke University.

Conference Committee|CADD Founding Members:

Takiyah Amin, Thomas F. DeFrantz,  Shireen Dickson,  Nadine George-Graves, Jasmine Johnson, Raquel Monroe, C. Kemel Nance, Carl Paris, John Perpener, Will Rawls, Makeda Thomas, Andrea E. Woods Valdés, Ava LaVonne Vinesett.