College Hosts New ‘African American Dance Symposium’
Issue   |   Tue, 03/20/2018 - 22:40
A group of people are situated in a circle on the stage of Kirby Theater. They hold their arms out in a dance position.
Photo courtesy of Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17
Community members participate in a dance master class as part of the African American Dance Symposium, which takes place from mid-February until April and is organized by theater and dance visiting scholar Ninoska M’bewe Escobar.

The theater and dance department debuted the African American Dance Symposium on Feb. 16. The symposium, which is free and open to the public, consists of master classes, film screenings and lectures leading up to a two-day conference on April 13 and 14.

The symposium was organized by theater and dance visiting scholar Ninoska M’bewe Escobar, whose speciality in African-American dance brought new offerings to the department.

She was impressed by previous strides in African-American dance made by the Five College community, she said, and decided to continue the work at Amherst.

“I began to imagine what I could do, in the limited time that I knew I would be here, to add to that trajectory of attention of African-American choreographers, perhaps a sustained focus within the framework of a small conference,” she said in an email interview.

The symposium will focus on the connections between African-American vernacular or social dance, street dance and concert dance. Escobar found that these different areas of dance highlight specific attributes of African-American culture, such as community and family.

So far, the symposium put on screenings for films like “Free to Dance” and a master class on West African Sabar.

Escobar said she is excited for the audience to examine African-American dance through these different mediums.

“It offers students, faculty and the community an opportunity to observe and listen, and to learn more about the history about African American dance,” she said.

The symposium will highlight the important role that history and politics play in African-American culture, and how it is reflected in forms of dance.

“[Dance] also projects social politics,” Escobar said. “When you look at the dance of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, you see many choreographers including many black choreographers and choreographers of color raising very important social issues in their work.”

Escobar also mentioned community as an aspect of the social politics present in African-American dance.

Escobar, who has been trained by renowned choreographer, dancer and activist Alvin Ailey, incorporated his values of community into the symposium.

“[Dancers] need to maintain connection with their own communities,” she said. “That means working with young children, working with adults in various kinds of settings: in community centers, public schools, [and] hospitals.”

Escobar noted that the active participation of the community is crucial to the symposium’s success.

One way Escobar sees this vision coming alive is through the master classes and performances, during which audience members can actively participate in the sessions.

“I’m hoping that the community will turn out and participate in the weekend symposium,” she said. “I’m hoping that they will lend their experiences with dance — I personally believe that dance is something that builds community.”

Community-building is one of the main reasons Escobar decided to create the symposium. The events and explorations of African-American dance are intended to “maintain the connection between what happens on stage and community,” she said.

The symposium also seeks to establish a focus on African-American dance at Amherst.

“If cultural production is not preserved, then it could be forgotten, and there have been many cultural products that have been lost or forgotten,” Escobar said.

Wendy Woodson, chair of the theater and dance department, expressed the same hope for the symposium.

“There are many gaps in our knowledge of the history of African-American dance forms and their influence in contemporary performance,” she said in an email interview.

“The symposium is a wonderful opportunity for Amherst and the Five College community to learn more about these vital contributions,” she added.

Rebecca Ford ’18, who worked with Escobar to develop the symposium, echoed similar sentiments in an email interview.

“I hope that this symposium sets a precedent for more of these kind of events, which celebrate African-American culture and the history of dance, in the future,” she said. “I have learned so much and I want others to have the opportunity to learn about this history in the years to come.”