CELEBRATION OF THE ANCESTORS: Barbea Williams, dancer, choreographer and arts educator, was about one month into her winter-long arts residency for the Tucson Arts District when she got the great news.
Her mentor in African dance, Katherine Dunham, would be coming to town to give a lecture, workshops and master classes at the University of Arizona. (The lecture, open to the public, will be on Tuesday. See below for details.)
"I'm so excited," Williams said, adding that her Barbea Williams Performing Company has been asked to participate in the festivities.
Dunham, now 84, has a solid place in dance history for her anthropological work in retrieving African dance styles, particularly as they metamorphosed in Haiti, and bringing them to mainstream audiences. But renowned as she is in dance circles, Dunham is not particularly well known to the general public. When her dance career was at its height, in the 1930s and 1940s, intransigent American racism kept her and her troupe from staying in hotels. Like the black jazz singers and musicians of her generation, she got a better reception in Europe.
In her old age, Dunham has been showered with honors and she's a highly respected model to younger African-American dancers. Williams, who's "been working in African dance in Tucson over 20 years," says it was Dunham who changed the course of her dance career.
Williams studied under Dunham in master classes at Southern Illinois University and at the latter's Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities in the impoverished city of East St. Louis, Illinois. But not everybody appreciated the new movements the studies brought to Williams' dancing. Back in Tucson at the UA some 20 years ago, Williams majored in dance, drama and accounting ("It really helps me in my business now," she said of the odd major out). A few of her dance professors reprimanded her, saying "Don't put that African stuff in your dancing!" Professor John Wilson, one of the few dance faculty still around from those days, was the exception, Williams said. Wilson's main interest is world dance and he encouraged her.
Since those days, Williams has studied African history and culture extensively on her own. Her knowledge infuses her company's dynamic performances of African dance, which she usually augments with tellings of folk tales and explanations of what's happening onstage. Dancers dressed in colorful traditional dress ("not costumes") and drummers pounding out African rhythms have mesmerized audiences around Arizona for years, particularly schoolchildren. In fact, the troupe recently won an award from Young Audiences for being the group on the YA roster most often asked to perform in the schools.
Williams takes her educational mission seriously, especially since misinformation about African culture is the rule in America. Traditional studies of Egypt were tainted by "slanted, racist" thinking, she said, and few Americans know of the sophisticated astronomy undertaken by some ancient African groups. In contemporary American culture, she said, "TV still perpetuates the stereotypes, the old buffooneries," and schoolteachers feel they've done the job of teaching Afro-American history by "bringing up Martin Luther King Jr. once a year and saying, 'We've done that.' I respect Martin Luther King, but frankly I'm a little tired of him. That's not gonna do it."
Williams has fashioned her residency, funded by the Tucson Arts District Partnership, in part to counteract what she calls the miseducation of children. Two panels on "The Impact of African Arts as an Educational Tool" will be held February 19 and March 5. The grand finale of the residency, on March 19, will be An African Procession: Celebration of the Ancestors/African Liberation Day.
"It will be a day-long event," she says. "First will be a performing presentation. Then an African-centered carnival like any other carnival but you'll learn about the Ashanti people, the Masai people. The third part will be the crafts people. They'll do masks, hairbraiding and so on."
But the highlight will be the African Procession, which will go from the Armory Park Senior Citizens Center to the Tucson Children's Museum. The procession will not only honor such historical African leaders as Jomo Kenyatta and Marcus Garvey, but will "also acknowledge local elders, people have have made contributions that go unnoticed. We're bringing their energy and spirit back to life. We'll acknowledge their work and their contributions, fighting for political, economic and emotional liberation."
Perhaps also on Williams' mind will be the contributions of dance elder Dunham.
The children's dance workshop, for ages 6 and up, is from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, January 15, at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 408 S. Sixth Ave., and the drumming workshop will be from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m. Admission is free but reservations are required. For more information call 292-9313.
The Barbea Williams Performing Company will give a free presentation at noon on Saturday, January 28, in the northeast corner of El Con Mall, 3601 E. Broadway.
Katherine Dunham will give a free lecture, illustrated by videos of her dances, at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 17, at the Center for Creative Photography on the UA campus. At noon, Wednesday, January 18, she will participate in a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on the mall. For more information call 621-1877.
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