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Chuck Davis

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Chuck Davis, Photo by Bruce R. Feeley

About 

Chuck Davis (1937- ), performer and artistic director, began dancing professionally after college graduation, appearing with Olatunji Dance Company and with the Afro-Cuban ensembles of Eleo Pomare and Bernice Johnson, among others. Inspired by the Sierra Leone National Dance Company at the 1964 New York World's Fair, he pursued African themes in his choreography for the Chuck Davis Dance Company, founded in 1968, and took the troupe to Nigeria in 1977 to perform during the first of many visits. In 1980 Davis was invited by the American Dance Festival to be in residence with ADF's Community Service Program in Durham. Four years later the African-American Dance Ensemble was formed with musicians and dancers identified or trained through Davis's outreach efforts. "Peace, love, respect for everybody" is both the characteristic aesthetic and interactive mantra that ends all performances, celebrating traditional African art as a resource to encourage multicultural understanding. Davis also leads group visits to West Africa to experience direct contact with dances that are deeply integrated into the fabric of village life.

Pictured right: Chuck Davis in performance at the 1999 American Dance Festival. Davis became artist in residence at ADF in 1982 and founded the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham in 1984. (Photograph by Bruce R. Feeley; courtesy of the American Dance Festival Archives.)

 

Chuck Davis (1937- )

By Lisa Traiger

“Peace. Love. Respect – for everybody!” With this chant, choreographer, dancer, and master teacher Chuck Davis ignites audiences. But more than a means to excite viewers about his singular brand of African dance -- created and disseminated on American soil -- this rousing chant has become a tool in what Davis calls “edutainment,” performances that impart lessons on cultural history and understanding.

Over the course of his career, Davis, a broad and towering man with a booming bass voice, has served as a bridge in the dance world, bringing traditional African dance and drumming to American audiences and introducing African-American dancers in particular to these root forms.  Davis, who studied with many of the founding generation of African American dancers, among them Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Alvin Ailey, has passed his knowledge to a new generation who are contemporizing African dance, from tappers Savion Glover and Jason Samuels Smith to hip hop artist Ron Brown to female dancers like Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and the all-female company Giwayen Mata. As founder and director of the DanceAfrica festival, initially at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, later in major cities across the country, Davis has brought his unique form of “edutainment” – dancing, drumming, storytelling, and audience participation – to tens of thousands year after year.

Born New Year’s Day 1937 in Raleigh, N.C., Charles Rudolph “Chuck” Davis recalls a warm and lively childhood. Mother Annie was a domestic, and father Tony a laborer. Dance and music were not a major part of his upbringing, Davis said. “Aside from social dancing, my daddy would do some of the buck ‘n’ wing and the Shorty George and the duck foot. Mommy was a Baptist,” he said, which meant she didn’t dance. By high school, Davis became a cheerleader, majorette, and drum major.

After high school, Davis enlisted in the Navy, serving as a hospital corpsman at Bethesda Naval Hospital, near Washington, D.C. At George Washington University Hospital he worked closely with polio patients. Off-duty weekends he spent at the Dunbar Hotel, where mambo and cha cha cha ruled. In the late 1950s, when D.C. nightclubs were still segregated, Jean Early, the best mambo dancer in town, asked Davis to partner her for “Suicide Mambo” contests – “it was so fast and your feet hardly touched the floor,” he said.

In D.C. he began dance classes at Howard University, but never graduated: “I ‘quit-uated,’” he admitted. “I was in class every day, but I was never enrolled.” Among his dance classes in the District were ballet with Bernice Hammond, Graham technique at Howard with Carolyn Tate, jazz and tap with Klara Harrington in the basement of her Northeast Washington home, and Trinidadian and Caribbean technique with Geoffrey Holder, who became a major early influence.

“After meeting Geoffrey for the first time everything changed. He forced me to come out of myself. I am 6’5,” said Davis, “and all of the dancers in my classes were short and the classes were in the basement. So I would pull in and never stretch out. I couldn’t do a classical high fifth.” Holder taught him to pull up, stretch out and use his length, height and long legs. Davis also took to wearing all white for a time, like Holder.

The day after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, Davis met Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, one of his first introductions to authentic African drumming and dance. Invited to join Olatunji’s company in New York, Davis left D.C. and “got there on Tuesday, learned the five ballets on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and premiered on Saturday. I’ve been kicking ever since.”

He immersed himself in the New York dance scene, taking classes from Martha Graham, Thelma Hill, Katherine Dunham, Jean-Leon Destine, Pearl Primus, Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey, Jose Limon, Lar Lubovitch, and Emile Faustin, whom he called his “placement” teacher, and who solidified the young dancer’s ballet technique. In 1964, with the Olatunji company, he performed at the New York World’s Fair and came into contact with many African dancers and drummers who were performing there.

In 1968, Davis created the Chuck Davis Dance Company at Brooklyn Community College, which performed traditional African dances he learned from Olatunji, as well as other material. In the early 1970s he traveled to Guyana, where he met Cuban, Caribbean, and Haitian dancers, and in 1977, as he initiated the first DanceAfrica festival at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Davis made the first of more than 40 visits to Africa. There he soaked in the music, dance, and culture inherent in African village life and brought back that knowledge and experience to disseminate to his dancers and students.

In subsequent years, Davis brought DanceAfrica programs to Philadelphia, Newark, Minnesota, and Los Angeles, and the festival of African, Afro-Caribbean and U.S. companies maintains a yearly presence in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., and Washington, D.C. In 1982 he joined the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., as an artist in residence, and the ADF director at the time, Charles Reinhardt, urged to him start an African company in Durham. Relocating to North Carolina, in 1984 Davis founded the African American Dance Ensemble, which he continues to direct.

Among his many awards, Davis has received a Bessie New York Dance and Performance Award; the Brooklyn Academy of Music Award for distinguished service, honorary doctorates from Medgar Evers College in N.Y. and Williams College in Mass.; the artist of the year award from Dance/USA; a Dance Magazine Award; and the Balasaraswati Joy Ann Dewey Endowed Chair at the American Dance Festival. Davis continues to teach, lecture, perform and choreograph from his company’s base in Durham, N.C.


NOTE: Quotations in this essay are from a personal telephone interview with Lisa Traiger, author, July 19, 2011.


An independent arts journalist, Lisa Traiger writes on dance for The Washington Post Weekend section and Dance, Dance Teacher, Washington Jewish Week and The Forward. She edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s eJournal. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from University of Maryland, College Park, and taught dance appreciation at UMCP and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-07. She was on the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-09.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Patrick, K.C. “Chuck Davis and DanceAfrica,” Dance Magazine, April 2004: 44-46.

Warren, Charmaine Patricia. “Finding the Power,” Dance Magazine, January 2010. (link)

Online Resources

Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble website: http://www.africanamericandanceensemble.org/index.htm

Lewis-Ferguson, Julinda. “Charles Rudolph Davis,” http://www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/davis.html

Moving Image

Chuck Davis: Dancing Through West Africa. Dir. Gorham Kindem. Videocassette. Filmmakers Library, 1987.

Davis visits Senegal and Gambia and takes in West African village life, including dances of the Wolof, Mandinka and Diola people. Features a performance by the African American Dance Ensemble.