Pearl Primus, a brilliant dancer and anthropologist, once said, “The dance is strong magic. The dance is a spirit. It turns the body to liquid steel. It makes it vibrate like a guitar. The body can fly without wings. It can sing without voice. The dance is strong magic. The dance is life.” 

This Memorial Day weekend, BAM’s annual DanceAfrica Festival, the largest African dance festival in the country, will offer proof of the truth of that description with a program titled “DanceAfrica 2023 Golden Ghana: Adinkra, Ananse, and Abusua” at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, May 26–29.

Under the artistic direction of Abdel R. Salaam. the cultural celebration—launched several decades ago by the Founding Elder Baba Chuck Davis—features traditional performances, including the “Memorial Tribute to the Ancestors and Elders” and one of Ghana’s best and most internationally known dance companies, the National Theater of Ghana’s National Dance Company (National Dance Company of Ghana). The event celebrates the artistic vitality and revolutionary history of Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from colonial rule, through dance, music, and community. 

DanceAfrica Brooklyn Academy of Music Brooklyn, N.Y. May 23, 2019 Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

In a recent conversation, National Dance Company of Ghana’s Artistic Director Stephany Ursula Yamoah, a dance activist for whom the performing and visual arts are a way to both entertain and educate the world about cultural, social, and political issues, described the upcoming program and provided background information about the company making its BAM DanceAfrica debut. 

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Yamoah explained that the company grew out of a Ghana Dance Ensemble founded in 1962 by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the West African republic after it gained independence in 1957. Nkrumah, she said, recognized the power of the arts, including dance, to unify the new nation and believed the cultural emancipation of Ghana, and ultimately Africa, was linked to their traditional arts. 

Not only would Ghana soon be followed by some 20 newly independent African nations, but Nkrumah was an early proponent of Pan-Africanism, which shared some ideological common ground with America’s Black Power and Black Arts movements. Bolstered by leaders who believed in the power of music and dance, the National Dance Company has become an internationally critically acclaimed troupe of more than 40 dancers and musicians and is, Yamoah said, “ a global ambassador for the Ghanaian culture.” 

“It was difficult to choose the unit of 17 or so dancers and seven musicians [who] would come to BAM,” she said, because at company auditions “everyone was on fire.”  She guarantees the troupe will tear up the stage with an exciting program of traditional Ghanaian dances and music, including the royal court dance kete and fontomfrom drumming. 

DanceAfrica Council of Elders begin traditional DanceAfrica Procession during DanceAfrica 2022 (Nate Palmer photo)

The troupe will also collaborate with the DanceAfrica Spirit Walkers and BAM Restoration Dance Youth Ensemble. Part of the production will take the form of a lively club scene, complete with Ghanaian and Nigerian highlife performed by the 10-piece ensemble Arkestra Africa, featuring Afropop vocalist Amma Whatt, under the direction of K Osei Williams. 

The program will also include such long-held traditional components as the moving “Memorial Tribute to the Ancestors and Elders.” 

Since it was created in 1977 under the guidance of Baba Chuck Davis, DanceAfrica has evolved into a highly anticipated and high-spirited Memorial Day weekend tradition that brings together the entire community. It is part of a month-long celebration centered around dance performances at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, and includes several workshops; the popular outdoor DanceAfrica Bazaar with more than 150 vendors selling crafts, food, and fashion; a visual art piece commissioned for DanceAfrica by Pan-African artist Cecilia Lamptey-Botchway; a film series curated by the New York African Film Festival at BAM Rose Cinemas; and a live-music dance party at BAMcafé.

Artistic Director Abdel R. Salaam described this year’s DanceAfrica as “an intergenerational experience that attempts to lift the spirit and understanding of Ghana’s rich ‘golden’ culture through its intelligences of dance, music, symbolism, and Anansi’s Web of oneness that unites our ancestral and contemporary families.” 

As always, in addition to being intergenerational, this will be an exciting, entertaining, educational, and rewarding communal experience.

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  2. Dance Africa at BAM (30 Lafayette, Brooklyn) is a great show! The dance, music, and tribute to the elders were all amazing! I expected to be entertained. Instead, we were taken on an illustrious, magical journey! May 26-29, 2023 at BAM in Brooklyn

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