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At 20 years old, Def Dance Jam Workshop (DDJW), under founder and director Aziza, will present their spring season (May 16-18) at MIST Harlem and Theater Arts Center/The Smith. For this season, titled “Duets, Do It’s, Do Etc. … Artivisim: A Dance Concert of Social Awareness,” Aziza “transitions the leadership to the community with members choreographing their own duets,” notes the press release. Additionally, the workshop is now named “DDJ Community.”
At its beginning, DDJW was made up of artists with and without different abilities, and it has grown to include a mixed-ability, intergenerational performing community. Aziza brings a lifetime of experience to her work with DDJW and their work with the community. As a longtime Harlem resident and community activist, she has worked or performed with Dianne McIntyre’s Sound In Motion, Chuck Davis and Carmen DeLavallade. She has danced on Broadway and choreographed off-Broadway productions. She is also the founder and executive director of the Black Choreographers Project, which serves members of the dance community of color who are 50 years and older, and she is ordained as an interfaith minister.
These are just some of her many accomplishments that feed her devotion to DDJW since 1994. In an interview with the AmNews, Aziza shared some thoughts about the upcoming season.
AmNews: What does this 20-year anniversary mean personally and community-wide to the organization?
Aziza: Funding in the arts continues to decrease, and running a nonprofit in the arts is very challenging. To still be up and able to provide programs for 20 years is a great milestone for us, [especially] when I have seen so many nonprofits that were up and running before me, or the same time as me, closed due to lack of funding.
For the community, the fact that we have so many new families that join us every year, and generations of families that continue as active participants, speaks to the need of the services we offer. We are the only program in the Harlem community that provides programs and pre-professional and professional training in the performing arts for youth and adults with and without “different abilities.”
Can you recall when DDJW was just an idea?
I retired as a performer in the summer of 1993. The following week, I received funding from a donor to start whatever program I wanted. They requested I send them a proposal that day. Within one hour of sitting to form my ideas … God poured the ministry of Def Dance Jam Workshop in my heart. I can’t really say the idea was mine; it flowed so easily as I wrote every detail … on paper. [There were some] tasks that I did not have the skill level for at the time … but God was clear with the charge, and I was obedient.
What is most memorable from that time?
The challenges, but also how quickly the program came together. It felt right, so it gave me the confidence to take huge leaps of faith. Also, in the first week, the [issues between the] five hearing girls and five deaf girls, who did not want to speak to each other, let alone dance with each other, soon melted away, and they bonded into a family. The parents took longer to come around then. I had to prove myself, picking the students up from school, doing their homework with them on the bus, feeding them dinner and taking them home some evenings—I would hit all five boroughs just dropping students home. It was hard, memorable but magical.
Over the years, you have sought out and received incredible support from artists who sometimes return year after year. What prompts this commitment?
Artists return because of the standard of work we produce, [the] ethics and character our artists develop and the level of integrity that is demanded and maintained by all in the community. Everyone has something valuable to contribute in the program regardless of physicality, age and developmental ability. No one is a superstar, but everyone is super.
This year marks the return of Harlem’s own Dianne McIntyre and choreographer and DDJW mentor Ronald K. Brown, correct? What might you say about their relationship with DDJW?
Dianne is my mentor, and I danced with her company … for over eight years. I do what I do because of Dianne. She is a great example for me as a woman of color, having the only professional dance studio in Harlem for years, and artistically, I carry the style of what I do from her.
For our 10th anniversary, Dianne danced with one of the young dancers who was 17 at the time; now she returns for the 20th anniversary to dance a duet with … 10-year-old Kalimah Wouadjou, who Dianne handpicked to perform with her [recently] at New York Live Arts … honoring James Baldwin. Our young people know how to improvise … this is the legacy that Dianne has given me, and I hope to pass [it] on to them.
Ronald K. Brown will open the show in a duet with drummer Iyedun Ince, blessing and setting the tone for the evening. [This] has kind of been his role from the beginning. When I premiered the DDJW Company at Judson Memorial Church, Ron came to the performance and wrote me a letter the next day, saying he loved the work and wanted to help in any way. He has been an integral part of the community ever since.
Collaborating is not new to DDJW, but this year there is a special twist to what will be presented, correct?
Correct. This year as we celebrate the milestone of 20 years, I am also celebrating a transition of leadership. I will start to focus on some other things with my ministry, so this year starts the slow transition of leadership as I reshift and condense the organization in some ways. We have organically shifted the branding; we no longer use “workshop,” but [instead] Def Dance Jam community. Every member in the community takes more of a leadership role.
We are premiering the new work “Duets, Do It’s, Do Etc. ... Artivism,” [and] each member in the community has created a duet based on a social issue that has directly affected them in some way. So members are really taking leadership roles in this production as choreographer, arts managers, writers, etc. From 8-year-old Faith Garcia, who has created a dance based on her not liking to wear hearing aids, to Maria Lucas, now 20 years old and has been with the program over 10 years. [Lucas] choreographed a duet based on the five silent diseases in the African-American community in addition to being an administrative assistant and becoming one of the lead teaching artists.
The organization and community involvement through the many programs are year-round, but the performance is a marker of sorts. What is the takeaway after each year?
We take a year to create a full evening work. We do a work-in-progress showing during the summer and premiere the work every May. The takeaway is not the performance but the process the community takes throughout the year that becomes the catalyst for the presentation. For example, with the new duet project, every member partnered with a social service organization based on their topic. So the offering is a creative duet that speaks to a critical issue, with resources organizations present for audience members who need assistance with the social issue that may be present in their lives. Art that can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others—that is the takeaway or offering that we try to give every year.
McIntyre and Brown return this season. All performances are interpreted in American sign language. For more information, visit www.defdancejam.org.