Chuck Davis became a professional dancer by accident, literally. Long before he founded the DanceAfrica festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a Memorial Day Weekend tradition now celebrating its 34th year, Davis was working in a hospital, planning to become a nurse.
He had been born New Year’s Day, 1937 and had grown up in Raleigh, North Carolina. There was no “Dancing with The Stars” then, no “So You Think You Can Dance,” and Davis didn’t think he could dance; he didn’t think about it at all. Even if he had thought about it, there were no dance schools in Raleigh open to African-Americans.
“But the seeds were planted,” Davis says. “I just wasn’t aware of it at the time.”
There were the majorettes that entranced him in his high school’s marching band, the “Hoochie Coochie girls” at the North Carolina state fair that Davis and his friend would sneak in to see. Then, when he had enrolled in the Navy, moved to Maryland to work in a hospital, and took a city bus to explore Washington D.C., there was the nightclub at the Dunbar Hotel, where he discovered the mambo, the cha-cha-cha, and the merengue of Roland Kave and the Latin-American All-Stars.
“The seeds began to jump,” he says. He started dancing socially, and when that club closed down, he moved on to the Casbah a couple of blocks away. There happened to be a dance troupe there that performed on the weekends and Davis watched them, over and over. He attended so frequently that one night, when one of the dancers got into a car accident, the troupe asked him whether he would be willing to stand in for him. All he had to do was let a female dancer named Ernestine jump into his arms, then he would turn around and set her down. “Shoot, I’m a Capricorn,” he remembers thinking. “I can do anything I set my mind to.”
When the time came, he caught the dancer as planned. “But I didn’t put her down. I swung her around this way, and that way, and around,” he says, his massive arms hugging the air at different angles to demonstrate, his face beaming at the memory. “Then the worst thing happened – the audience applauded. My first choreography.”
It was 1959, and Chuck Davis has been a dancer and choreographer ever since. He is 74 years old now, a towering man physically – 6’6” – and also a towering figure in the story of African-influenced dance in America. A gregarious man, with a ready hug for everybody and an even readier smile, he presides over a festival that has become the longest running performance series at BAM.
How he got from young dancer to legend could (and should) be a book. It would be a volume filled with cameos by such famous entertainers and artists as Duke Ellington, James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr., and larger roles for such seminal figures as Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian-born musician who hired Davis to be in his dance troupe, and the dancer Geoffrey Holder, “my mentor, my guru,” who taught him to be proud of his height. “Chuck, lift your chin," Davis imitates Holder's sonorous bass voice. “Your chin is not inside your body. Lift your chin, and the world becomes yours.”
The world did become his, with a special interest in the continent of his ancestors, which led him in 1968 to form his own company.
“I created the Chuck Davis Dance Company because of Tarzan,” he explains. “All that ‘ooga, booga, booga, booga’ stuff. Tarzan never set foot Africa; it was all filmed on a soundstage in Nevada. There was a time that you could only learn about Africa from National Geographic.”
In 1977, BAM invited Chuck Davis to perform for the season. Instead, he wanted to stop talk of the “bickering” among the many African-influenced troupes that had taken root in the New York. He invited them all to participate in a concert series that became an annual event – DanceAfrica.
The festival includes not just the dance performance but a bazaar with more than 200 vendors, a film series, classes, workshops, a scholarship award ceremony and a free late-night dance party. There have been some technological changes, Davis says: “The drums sound more natural now, rather than tinny.” But as artistic director, his main aim is to maintain the festival’s “authenticity.” That does not mean any particular style – Africa is a huge continent, and the Diaspora spreads throughout the world.
“What distinguishes it,” Davis says, talking about African-influenced dance, “is rhythm, language, and the attire. The percussion helps too.” But in the half century that Chuck Davis has traveled the world, he has also come to see dance as the earth's universal language, especially in "earth" dances, agrarian dances: "Whether digging" -- he makes a digging motion -- "or praying for rain" -- he lifts his huge hands up into the air, palms facing him, and shakes them -- "or harvesting, the dances are the same around the world."
That is why, at the opening ceremony a week ago, and at school performances, and at the beginning of the dance performance itself, Davis always says hello in some ten languages. He uses American Sign Language to lead a visual chant: “Peace, Love, Respect for everybody.” He gives everyone in the audience – and the world – a big hug.
DanceAfrica 2011: Expressions and Encounters: African, Cuban, and American Rhythms includes performances tonight, May 27 at 7:30 p.m., tomorrow, May 28, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday and Monday, May 29 and 30, at 3 p.m.