Golden Steps

The Dunbar Cultural Center hosts a dance concert celebrating black culture

Barbea Williams is bringing African dance to the Dunbar Cultural Center, a building that was once Tucson's black school.

Journeys, to be staged on Friday and Saturday nights, "will be traditional African dance and traditional African music."

The live djembe orchestra will feature two musicians on African drums—Williams' son, Beyah Rasool, and Roosevelt "Ski" Smith. Fifteen dancers in the Barbea Williams Performing Company will do African dance.

The celebration of black culture will also include blues work choreographed by Kristin Eberhardt and hip-hop dancing put together by Shakayla Byrd and Eric Mitchell. A collaboration with the Shake It Up Club, the concert will have three sections loosely organized around the theme of gold, says Williams, a longtime Tucson teacher of African dance and a student of African history. The subtitle, Trans-Saharan Gold, Southern Gold and Urban Gold, conjures up the journey of Africans to America.

Williams' narrative piece is about gold mining and trade in the ancient kingdom of Ghana, which thrived from the ninth through 11th centuries A.D.

"People came across the Sahara on camels, opening up trade and allowing people access to oils, tusk and spices," she says. The story is told through dance. "It's not verbal. It's all through movement."

Switching to the New World, Eberhardt's work looks at poverty—or the lack of gold—and the blues music that laments life's hardships, Williams says. Finally, the hip-hop dance considers the "bling-bling revolution" in urban America, and the power of gold and money "over all of our lives."

It's no small irony that the African-themed concert is being staged at the building that was Tucson's contribution to racial segregation. Generations of black kids went to the forerunner of Dunbar beginning in 1912, though the Mission-style building was not completed until 1918. African-American kids, no matter where they lived in town, had to go to Dunbar for first- through eighth-grade. For high school, they were allowed to go to Tucson High, since it was the district's only high school.

Tucson integrated the school in 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education put an end to de jure school segregation. A modern addition was grafted onto the old building, and the whole place was renamed John Spring Junior High. (Its neighborhood, Dunbar/Spring, takes its name from the schools.)

Despite its identification with the nation's problematic racial history, the former school still exerts a strong emotional pull among older Tucsonans. Named for the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the school was staffed by African-American teachers fondly remembered for demanding the best from their students. One of its principals, Morgan Maxwell Sr., is legendary for fighting to get the school what it needed.

The school closed in 1978. In 1995, the nonprofit Dunbar Coalition paid the Tucson Unified School District $25 for the dilapidated building and its two acres. The plan was to establish a cultural center in the 51,000-square-foot building, with a museum, theater and other attractions. However, the building was in poor shape, Williams says, and progress has been slow.

"It had to be taken back from scratch. There was an enormous amount of work and red tape," she says.

The museum has not opened yet, but the theater is "up and running," Williams says. "It's used every weekend," rented out for weddings and quinceañeras. Williams staged a Kwanzaa concert in the theater in December, and she used the dance studio for a Michael Jackson tribute in the summer, in honor of his birthday.

Williams moved her troupe into the studio in August 2008. "I have a separate dance studio, with a wonderful dance floor and windows with lots of natural light," she says. "We can perform in there too."

Williams says it's a pleasure to have a theatrical home for her dance company. In recent years, her dancers have performed at Tucson Meet Yourself and other festivals, and danced in other groups' productions.

"Now we're producing our own shows, not just performing," Williams says happily. "We're building our own season."

Many of her dancers hail from the UA, where Williams has taught African dance as an adjunct professor for seven years and runs the Afrikana Dance Ensemble. Several dancers in the troupe, two now at Pima Community College and two still in high school, all trained with Lee Hunt in the dance program at Sahuaro High School, Williams says.

Williams is well known for her community arts work, and not just in dance. She recently won a visual literacy grant from PRO Neighborhoods to stage a trio of community arts events, both at Dunbar and the Quincie Douglas Branch Library on the southside. During African American History month in February, "We'll do a hands-on African-centered arts carnival." She'll convert old carnival games into fun educational activities, immersing everything in the dances, songs and stories of Africa.

Williams also won a $5,000 artists project grant from the crumbling Arizona Commission on the Arts to study African influences in Mexico.

"I'm going to Veracruz," she says. Africans were brought into colonial Mexico through the port there and sent on to slave markets in the capital or put to work on local sugar plantations. She'll also travel to Tabasco to study the giant Olmec heads, dating from 1400 B.C., and to see the pyramids outside of Mexico City.

The dance community will benefit from her research. "I'll incorporate the new knowledge into our dance performances."

Dance is never far from Williams' thoughts—and she wants to get everybody dancing. Concertgoers can come early and take a master dance class before the show, learning hip hop on Friday and West African dance on Saturday. Then they'll be invited to join in the concert's grand finale, performing old and new dance moves, on the stage at the old black school.

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