‘We’re not in it alone’: Building community for Black dance

Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project seeks to safeguard future for local artists

Ayodele is a Yoruba word meaning “joy in the home,” and the Chicago-based Ayodele Drum & Dance imparts the joy of these African arts through adult and youth classes, workshops and performances—all adapted for remote modes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ayodele is one of eight Chicago companies that are part of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, launched in 2019 in a partnership with UChicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the Joyce Foundation, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The CBDLP creates a community of artists and gives these historically underfunded companies operational and financial support to help them reach wider audiences and safeguard their futures.

While in-person events continue to be restricted for public health reasons, performances by the companies and conversations with their creative leads are available on the CBDLP website.

Mashaune Hardy, assistant director of partnerships and strategy for the University of Chicago’s Logan Center and a founding member of Ayodele Drum & Dance, talked with UChicago Magazine about African dance and the CBDLP.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What impact have you seen so far from the CBDLP? What do you still hope to see it achieve?

The companies have a stronger sense that we’re not in it alone. We had that sense before, but the CBDLP brings us together in one place where we can talk to each other and ask questions. It creates a sense of community among the companies, lifting each other, sharing with and feeding off one another, and learning from one another.

My hope and dream is that it grows into a strong, solid incubator. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel every time a Black dance company comes up. This project can become a space where we can find out, for instance, the best venue for a show for 300 people, and have greater bargaining power in booking venues. We can even hold down a venue, saying we’re going to bring you the whole project, and it can be your whole season.

What does the University of Chicago specifically bring to the Black Dance Legacy Project?

The University’s Logan Center employs people, like me, who work on the CBDLP, and act as stewards for the grant from the Joyce Foundation and as stewards for the needs of the eight companies. For example, the Logan Center provided space for the opening CBDLP concert in fall 2019 and captured high-quality video of the performance, producing a sizzle reel for each company that they can use to promote their work.

These companies bring in the community for learning as well as performance, correct?

All the companies have a youth or emerging dancer component. Many offer professional development for teachers and cross-training in different styles for each other. Some have stronger community models they can share with the other companies, like Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s Mature H.O.T. Women program, which is for women over 25 and includes 10 weeks of classes capped by a performance. For African dance, you don’t age out, unlike in ballet or modern.

Another example is the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, which is about building people. They realize the children coming through their programs may not become professional dancers. Their mantra: you may not leave a dancer, but through the discipline and focus of dance, you will leave a better person. Ayodele’s Rites of Passage program for young dancers is also about teaching life skills as well as dance.

How have the companies had to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dance, and the arts generally, are getting us through it. More people have been consuming and creating performing arts than ever through this pandemic. You can find more art online now than ever before.

Why is the CBDLP so needed?

In Chicago dance, and maybe nationwide, 95% of funding and resources goes to ballet and ballet-centric dance styles such as modern and jazz.

After that there’s ethnic dance. Within that 3-5% of dance overall, people of color get even less. In school dance programs, ballet is a requirement and a base while every other style is an elective. Even as an elective, African dance wasn’t in anyone’s purview until very recently. Columbia College in Chicago has it in their curriculum now, but that’s fairly new. All of this creates expectations as a spectator—only ballet gets classified as high-quality dance.

But the companies in the CBDLP produce high-quality dance, dance that is necessary, and not only for African Americans. We have the same range of emotions and feelings as everyone else.

What is distinctive about African dance?

African dance is a very communal thing, and a form that grew out of necessity. Some of the rhythms and moves map back to farming in fields, initiation rites for young boys and young women, wedding celebrations. Today’s forms of African dance may have lost the connection to those original reasons and grown a new purpose, but they still map back to specific actions—teaching a new generation how you plant things, how you harvest them.

What does the future look like for these companies?

The project was funded for three years through Joyce and Duke. After that, I’m not sure. Foundations are restructuring their grantmaking after 2020. There’s lots of self-reflection and introspection everywhere, including in arts funding. There may be more support for general operating expenses, and this may be a project that falls into the realignment. There may be more money put in the hands of the companies directly.

A lot of awareness was raised in the last year. Theater workers have been standing up and saying, this organization has no diversity or very little. Every aspect of the art world has been going through introspection about where they stand.

—This story was first published by the University of Chicago Magazine.