at the Katherine Dunham Theatre of Kennedy-King College, December 9-12

I first saw African dance when the National Dance Company of Senegal performed at the Auditorium Theatre, just before Christmas six years ago. And I was hooked–by the energy, the daring, the rhythms, the up-front theatricality. At the same time I felt like a stranger at the feast. This is not my culture.

Learning to see African and African American dance has been a slow process, piecing together the various dance traditions but remaining an outsider, ignorant and astonished. Muntu Dance Theatre’s recent performances at Kennedy-King College, its 17th annual concert series, showed me several new things. Two of the three premieres featured not African but African American dance, which is somewhat quieter and softer–often out of necessity, as Juba Jig illustrated.

Choreographed by New York dancer and dance historian Mickey Davidson, Juba Jig re-creates slaves’ clandestine nighttime gatherings to dance and make music. Slave owners feared African Americans’ drums as methods of communication and took them away, so slaves played their own bodies–ham-bone rhythms–or washboards and tubs. Juba Jig opens with dozens of performers in colorful “country” clothes slapping their bodies in unison in increasingly complex rhythms, adding different body parts to the mix like instruments entering an orchestral arrangement–slapping the butt produces a deep bass tone, the chest a hollow, flatter sound, the shin a sharp tenor note. The dancing that follows is filled with struts and kicks, the women lifting their skirts to free their legs: some of it looks like a hoedown, some of it looks like a chorus line, all of it is joyous. This is the cakewalk, which originated in parody of the master’s and mistress’s mannerisms and evolved into one of the most popular entertainments of the 19th century among both blacks and whites.

Juba Jig is steeped in history, as the piece before it makes clear: We Became the Drum is a staged poem, a piece of oral history whose refrain is “They denied us the drum / So we became the drum.” Juba Jig shows how racism and slavery in this country muted and changed African dance and music but couldn’t wipe them out. The second premiere–Evening Time, choreographed by Muntu member Harry Detry (and inspired by Chicagoans Jimmy Payne, Fred Baker, and Danny Hinds)–also puts African American dance in the context of slavery.

Evening Time opens with a staging of the kind of hard labor West Indian slaves lightened with singing and chants: the men in backbreaking digging and scything, the women seated and breaking rocks into gravel by hand. They worked all day, and the fruits of their labor were never their own; but the evening was. When the work is over, women chatter about their children and men walk on with their drums, ogling the women. One woman (Regina Taitts) enters singing a strange, minor-key ditty about walking on the mountainside in the evening.

West Indian folk dance can be outrageously sexual and flirtatious, so outrageous that it’s funny. Evening Time is no exception: there’s the hint of a story about a big, big woman (Taitts again) whom all the men adore. But the “lucky” man who gets her gets more than he bargained for. Taitts is a sexual steamroller, a woman who applies her lipstick, waves her bottom in the air, and drops her hankie (haven’t we seen these things before?) knowing with absolute certainty she’ll drive the men wild. And when Taitts does cartwheels and splits and catches her man up in her arms, she brings the house down.

But more intriguing than the narrative high jinks is the dance itself. Its origins are clearly African, and some of the steps are African, but the dancing takes on Latin qualities too: the lifted torso, the slow and sinuous rather than thrusting hips, a flamencolike stamping, the forced arch of the foot. There’s more emphasis than in African dance on achieving a pretty line–part of the deeply ingrained flirtatiousness of this form, in which couples continually clasp and push each other away. In Juba Jig the dancing has the desperation of people trying under hostile circumstances to retain their culture, but in Evening Time it’s more relaxed, more celebratory–a release that’s taken for granted. Still, both dances are performed against a backdrop of repression and forced labor: the energy, the lightheartedness, even the giddiness seem reactions to a situation in which people did not own their own time.

Another, older work on this program, artistic director Amaniyea Payne’s Thru Mandela’s Eyes, is even more explicit about the effects of racism. Less a dance than a dramatized prayer, it features texts that describe the oppression of African blacks and call for African reunification and freedom. The dancers and musicians wear military dress and point imaginary rifles at the crowd (and for the first time during this concert I felt unwelcome); like guerrillas planning strategy, they unfold an invisible map and trace it with their fingers.

One side of African dance that remains foreign to me is its relentless extroversion: its physical braggadocio, didacticism, even sermonizing. Burt Supree’s review of Muntu in the Village Voice was headlined “Accentuate the Positive,” and though he loved the company overall, he did note that “the group’s eagerness is a little daunting, their assurance intimidating; they show no shadow side.” The dancing in Juba Jig and Evening Time is softer than in many of Muntu’s other works, but these are still upbeat pieces: slavery’s in the background, but the dancing defeats it. The other new work on the program, Bouee Musu Gahnay (“The Most Powerful Juju Woman”), by Liberian choreographer Kaikpai Passewe, also shows good triumphing over evil: in this narrative dance a young girl is bitten by a snake and brought back to life by a sorceress. Payne is a sinewy, ferocious wonder in the role, both terrifying and reassuring–this is good so harsh and willful it’s scary.

That kind of ferocious attack on evil, buttressed by a belief in the power of the spiritual to change the material world, seems typical of African American culture. To me it’s strange not to reflect on one’s own potential for evil. But I recognize that Muntu and its incantatory dances are great forces in Chicago–for outsiders as well as insiders, for anyone confronting these painful issues. If I have a complaint about this concert, it’s that they didn’t dance enough.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kwabena Shabu.