By Angela Hyde
As I walk in on the chilly Friday morning, members of Sankofa Danzafro are already in the classroom of the Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s only public high school focused on the visual and performing arts. I question whether or not it’s customary for someone who is not dancing to still take off their shoes. The tall and lanky dancers are smiling and speaking with one another in Spanish, a language I have sadly never learned, but enjoy listening to, like a song. I take my seat in the corner after saying hello to my colleagues and watch as the first class of BAA sophomores file into the room.
Sankofa Danzafro company founder and director Rafael Palacios instructs the class and his three dancers through stretches and warm-ups, with the sound of hand-drums leading their way, played by Jorge Arce, a Boston-based Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean musician who also collaborates with Celebrity Series’ program. That deep sound reverberates off the walls of the small dance studio, invading my bones as though I’m at a live concert – I can only imagine how the dancers feel. They look pulled by the music, though their dancing and the music work in tandem, and are equally important to their movement. These drums crescendo as the warm-ups get more intense, backs bending and arms at times languid, at times purposefully straightened.
Today’s master classes are part of , in which performers that Celebrity Series brings to Boston from around the world interact directly with students and community members. At times intense, with hard kicks or jutting elbows, and at others with smooth hip sways accompanied by languidly reaching arms, the Sankofa dancers take the students through Colombian-inspired dances as well as examples of salsa choque, a Colombian-born dance style that infuses salsa with hip-hop. It truly shows the range of the dancers and the style they perform.
During the class of younger students, so concentrated and determined, one young woman makes a mistake in turning the wrong direction. Rather than being frustrated or despondent, she laughs with the Sankofa dancer in front of her. They take a mistake and morph it into a positive moment, as it means she can learn from it. This is a prime example of what Artist Connections is about; joy in both mistakes and successes, as long as we’re learning from both.
Two classes were held that Friday morning, for both younger and older Boston Arts Academy dancers, and no one left without a smile. These intensive masterclasses were a look into a style that has been developed through ancestral roots and contemporary movement.
Like these classes, the performance I saw on Sunday, November 4th, presented by Celebrity Series as one in a series of intimate performances of dance with live music, at NEC’s new Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre, was an incredibly powerful example of Afro-Colombian and Afro-contemporary dance, with the percussive rhythms again filling my chest with music, and voices singing in languages I don’t understand. The debut performance with Celebrity Series was intense, emotionally raw, and fascinating for me, an outsider not only of Afro-Colombian culture but of dance in general. It was mesmerizing.
The show, City of Others, or “La Ciudad de los Otros,” is a showcase of styles both traditional and modern, and a protest against the lack of opportunities for minority communities and others marginalized by income, gender, sexual orientation, and more. The anger and hostility felt are present in many parts of the performance, in the performers yelling at one another, in the shuffle of peoples, and in the literal holding back of individualism. There is a moment in the show where all the dancers move as one, like a sea of fish, until one breaks off and begins a solo dance. At different intervals, the larger group attempts to hold him back, to stop him from dancing differently, individually. It’s a stark reimagining of how individualism often creates a vulnerability – you can’t blend in if you’re a group of one.
Near the end of the show, three planks of wood are brought out, and lights shine on them to create the shape of coffins. Three dancers start dancing beats after one another, the same dance but at different intervals. Perhaps this segmentation is a representation of individuality across time being persecuted. Perhaps, as the three wooden panels move to create a sort of cubicle and dancers take turns wildly dancing within it, this small space is meant to represent the way marginalized individuals live in a sort of solitude, even in a grand city. I may never know the true meaning of these symbols because I come from a different place in the world. It’s a glimpse into another life, a struggle and an anger that is powerful while simultaneously beautiful.
The show receives a standing ovation, as is well-deserved. Chests heaving with the labor of their performance, the dancers take their bows with smiles. It’s an achievement, one to take pride in, and when I leave for the bus, I am thankful for the opportunity and grateful that these individuals have taken it upon themselves to share their stories – stories people like me might never get to hear unless sought out.
After the show, members of Sankofa Danzafro and their director Rafael Palacios travel to the Veronica Robles Cultural Center in East Boston, and it is a wonderful confluence of Celebrity Series performers, both local and international. Just last month, Veronica Robles and her all-female mariachi ensemble performed for Celebrity Series in a Day of the Dead concert in the South End, and now her center hosts this intergenerational workshop. Twenty-five individuals attend, ranging from young children to senior women, with Jorge Arce returning to play the drums, and it is a lovely mixture of Sankofa’s Afro-Colombian dancing and the Latinx community of East Boston. The mix of cultures is celebrated, uplifted, and this after-show event solidifies the fact that the African roots of this Colombian company cannot be separated from the Latin.
As a College for Social Innovation Fellow in the Fall of 2018, Angela Hyde is an intern with the Advancement Department at Celebrity Series of Boston. She is a senior at Wheaton College MA, pursuing a Writing Degree, with a minor in Journalism Studies.
All photos by Robert Torres.
Video of Sankofa Danzafro’s Workshop at the Veronica Robles Cultural Center by Kristín Otharsson.