If you thought the coronavirus would derail this years DanceAfrica festival, you’re wrong. The festival is still on and going strong… along with a few virtual adaptations.

For the 43rd consecutive year, Brooklyn Academy of Music will host the DanceAfrica festival, a two-week celebration starting on May 15, that showcases the culture, dance and music of the African diaspora.

DanceAfrica artistic director Abdel Salaam. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has forced BAM to organize a virtual festival. For the first time, programming will include digital screenings, discussions, dance classes, a marketplace, and more.

“Just canceling DanceAfrica and not doing anything would have left a big empty space,” Coco Killingsworth, BAM’s vice president of education and community engagement, told BKReader.

Billed as the nation’s largest African dance festival, DanceAfrica is BAM’s longest running program. Chuck Davis, the highly esteemed African dance teacher and choreographer who passed away in 2017, founded the festival in 1977. Through the years, the festival, which features vibrant dance performances and an outdoor bazaar, has become a major event in Brooklyn. It draws huge crowds from diverse communities near and far.

Abdel R. Salaam, DanceAfrica’s artistic director since 2016, said festival-goers often tell him that they look forward to celebration every year, because it helps keep them centered and connected to the African diaspora.

“DanceAfrica is like an African-centric chiropractic adjustment of one’s spirit and soul through rhythm and music and dance,” said Salaam, 70, a critically acclaimed dancer and choreographer who co-foundered Forces of Nature Dance Theatre.

“In whatever form, the spirit of DanceAfrica is going to live.”

Experiencing African dance in the age of coronavirus

For many, the live African dance performance is the centerpiece of the festival.  However, achieving the same experience virtually would be a huge challenge. So this year, the organizers will stream past live performances.

Dance is “a living art form” that involves an exchange of energy between dancers and the audience, as well as between audience members who feel each other’s reactions to the performance, Salaam explained.

DanceAfrica 2019 Rwanda Reborn. Photo: Juliea Cervantes

“So, yes, that’s a challenge. Let’s not even pretend that it’s not,” he added.

Going forward, Salaam sees a place for virtual performances in the modern age, as he’s surrounded by dancers who are millennials in his company and who urge him to keep up with technology.

“It’s about creating balance, understanding the traditional and the new. In the modern world there is nothing wrong with having a performing arts experience that is digital,” he said.

The future of dance, post-pandemic

Across the board—from companies to religious institutions—the pandemic has forced organizations to consider new ways to operate in the virtual space.

Salaam and Killingsworth said the pandemic could create new ways of producing dance performances in the future.

Coco Killingsworth BAM vice president of education and community engagement. Photo: Jesse Winter

“This COVID-19 pandemic is a temporary darkness that will end at some point,” he said, adding, “It has helped us to realize that maybe it’s time to bring forth a digital understanding.”

Killingsworth believes the creatives and dancers will find a way forward.

“We want to think proactively,” Killingsworth said. She invites festival-goers to share their experience about what worked well this year and what did not well.

What to expect at DanceAfrica 2020

In BAM’s approach to creating a virtual festival this year, Killingsworth said the organizers did not want simply to replicate DanceAfrica for the virtual space:

“What we tried to do was look at all the important elements that maybe people didn’t know about, took for granted, or just couldn’t see the full structure of the festival, and tried to make an entry point into each of those,” she explained.

The menu of virtual events will include digital dance classes, interactive discussions with DanceAfrica pioneers and elders, film screenings and streaming of past dance performances.

On Memorial Day, the DanceAfrica pumps up the volume for a live virtual dance party, from 7 pm to 9 pm, featuring DJ YB. Afrobeat, funk, soul, rock, jazz, and hip-hop are on the dance party menu. The party honors health care professionals, first responders and all other essential workers.

DanceAfrica Bazaar. Photo: Nathan Haselby

This year the popular outdoor bazaar will be an online marketplace experience that will showcase fashion, jewelry and crafts of small businesses, which will receive the proceeds. The bazaar opens on May 15.

The talks, dance classes and marketplace are free to access. To stream films, and other events, the organizers are asking you “pay as you can.”

Click here for BAM’s DanceAfrica 2020 program page.

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Nigel Roberts

Nigel Roberts is a New York-based, award-winning freelance journalist. During his career, Nigel has written for several newspapers and magazines. He has extensive experience covering politics and was a...

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