Habari Gani?! Habri Gani?!
How do you greet your fellowman this Holiday Season? It is common to say, Happy Holidays
or Merry Christmas…you might even say Season’s Greetings as a way to acknowledge all of the festivities taking place around the end of the month of December. All across the globe Christmas is one that rings clear as sleigh bells- retelling the story of both Baby Jesus and Ole’ St. Nicholas and his flying Reindeer.
But there is one holiday that stands apart from those magical white snowy scenes that seek to celebrate, uplight and enlighten people of the African Ancestral Descent, called Kwanzaa. It is a 7-day ceremonial affair, conceived in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga in Los Angeles, CA in an effort to help amplify the voices of Black American Communities and invoke a sense of pride all throughout the Diaspora. Black and Brown communities in the United States at the time were longing to go deeper in the knowledge of self, so Kwanzaa provides that understanding of fundamental principles, morals and values which are embedded in a number of countries throughout the continent of Africa.
Each year, since the 1990’s the Dance Institute of Washington opens its doors to the greater DC Metropolitan area for a glimpse at the work that their young dance students and pre-professionals put together as a special tribute called, “The Spirit of Kwanzaa”. It was conceived by Fabian Barnes, the school’s Founding Director who started this annual tradition and celebration which would go on to receive recognition and residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Kwanzaa, a name derived from the Swahili term "matunda ya kwanza," or first fruits of harvest, "goes back to the agriculture and culture of Africa, where they would celebrate the harvest by playing music and dancing," Barnes says in Washington Post interview in 2001. Barnes, an African American Dancer, closed the economic wealth gap by taking ownership of commercial property at the corner of 14th and Monroe Street NW DC giving Black, Brown, and Latino children a home in dance to call their own. This undertaking was no ordinary feat, but an accomplishment that would continue the legacy as started in his own life by Dance Theatre of Harlem’s, Arthur Mitchell who imparted hope for a bright future making a statement that says, “Black Dance Excellence has a home in DC, it lives here….come and see.” Fabian Barnes has since passed on, in 2016 his school now survived by a former dance student, visionary and Princeton University graduate Kahina Haynes, now Executive Director who continues to service the community and offer the dance school as means of Cultural Exchange and Social Intervention in the DC Shaw area and worldwide.
Despite closures, shutdowns, cancellations, and postponements due to the COVID-19 epidemic DIW was able to host its first in-person performance in-house since the shutdown, at none other than thee Fabian Barnes Black Box Theatre. The celebration itself was like a voyage to Mama Africa and a returning home for many of whom have been touched by Fabian’s legacy and generosity throughout the years. DIW School has extended itself to providing for students as well as the larger population access to company and university admittance auditions to attend the Alvin Ailey School, workshops with renowned dance choreographers, for filming and news features, classes and community engagement events, and even a hub for to the Presidential Family, Michelle and Barack Obama during their administration.
The Spirit of Kwanzaa invokes just that, what it means in essence to be Young (or Old), Gifted, Spirited and Black. The celebration denotes the presence of family and community on a daily basis, the instilling of moral and integral values, the shaping of character according to the Ngozu Saba (the7 Principles of Kwanzaa) and the overall courage that it takes to hone these various dance forms, genres, and styles despite false rhetoric of which historically claims that BIPOC individuals are “unworthy or incapable” of mastering structural dance forms such as but not limited to Classical Ballet.
This is no ordinary show, the Spirit of Kwanzaa is an explosive encounter that keeps you on the edge of your seat, moves you, and touches your Soul. As you enter, you are pulled into a world outside of your own that pronounces the fertility of Africa’s Soil and people, the wind and sky right there in the Fabian Barnes Black Box Theatre which has been under construction for the past 2 years. Audience members who gathered around in support of the performance sat socially distant in visor seating were submerged in a deep blue Hue of Light, panels of hand-woven African Sankofa material with the colors of Africa and the Seven (7) Seas adorning it and the sound of the dun dun drum filling the room.
While you may expect to just see a darling recital danced by our kids, youth, and young adults, DIW quickly surprises you as each dance piece demonstrates a high level of discipline, performance professionalism, stage presence, and dynamic artistry
that says, “we’re not here to be cute and cuddly… buckle your seat belts, this is going to be a thrilling ride!”. It fills you with pride to see the essence of Blackness so unapologetically expressed through movement, vibrant costumery, music, and storytelling conveyed with such skill, grace, and proficiency on young Black bodies.
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All throughout the show, the pieces were amazingly engaging, deep and fun. By tradition, African and BIPOC People are called to build and uphold community — where everyone matters and has something to contribute big and small. By tradition, we the celebration of Kwanzaa begins with acknowledging sacred earth, the presence of Ancestors and being surrounded by Spiritual elements. In remembrance of Ancestors, Loved Ones, Ascended Masters, and the like, their names are spoken while libations are poured to accompanied by the humming hands of the Imole Orisa Drummers.
These dances pieces were storytelling montages of Kwanzaa, almost as if to open a pop-up book full of imagination, wonder, joy, and excitement. Even behind masks, the dancers commit to sharing wholeheartedly. DIW’s repertoire was developed by both local and internationally renowned choreographers such as Kevin Malone and Christopher Huggins, exposing the students to the future of professional dance while retaining a sense of integrity, hard work, and diligence that is required onstage, that is essentially who they are. It is not about perfection. But persistence.
Persistence is also a word one might use to describe Ashante Green, DIW Creative Director. Her dedication throughout the years to seeing to it that the Spirit of Kwanzaa retains a standard of excellence that it’s had since she was a trainee at the school herself! Persistence is what is needed to grow, show up in the community, make it count in partnerships with other arts organizations and live out the principles that Kwanzaa stands for all year round.
Ashante Green works closely with the students and their parents to ensure that they are advocated for as well equipped as young artists to put on a phenomenal performance like the one I saw the other night. What is most intriguing about Green’s choreographic work is her ability to clearly express a thought or concept, fill it with emotion and translate onto dancing bodies in a short amount of time and space. It’s captivating! There was no mover’s body left behind. Many in the audience claimed that they were also moving and grooving right there in their seats! How could they not? The sound of the music was infectious, the polyrhythms of the dancers' bodies waving, spiraling, rolling, hitting, twirling.
The journey was more than worth it. I felt like I was sitting in on an off-broadway production in New York City. DIW took us from the bright shining Sun, opening the program out with “Kwanzaa!” dancers wearing bright colors that pop; their costumes of bright green and orange along with headpieces and “Let’s Honor our Ancestors” by Afi Soul Lydia which felt like being transported back in time or watching a painting of women with baskets upon their heads by the Nile River caught in a groove; enjoying a moment of freedom, expressing themselves by in Sistahood.
These are just a taste of what all the show had to offer and having sat next to a historian while attending the performance took things to another level; Cultural Evangelist and Ambassador for the DC Metropolitan Area for over 30 years Rufus Stevenson turned out to be the designer and decorator for Dance Institute of Washington and has been working closely with Fabian for years- in fact since their very first performance at the Kennedy Center. Stevenson's handwoven pieces draped from the top of the ceiling to the floor at least 50 feet in height, its thick textured prints and colors adorned by the Sankofa bird and other Adinkra symbols created a mixed media effect during video projection shares.
One in particular, was a tribute to Bobby McFerrin a pleasant surprise. One could appreciate not only learning about McFerrin;s backstory but discovering how he used his body as an instrument to create sound and sagas that shaped the world of music; influencing prodigy instrumentalists such as Yo-Yo Ma. Moreover, it speaks to the synergy of music and dance how they work interchangeably; as dance is often viewed as an expression of sound, merely complement or accent to it instead of being recognized for how the two work together to create an experience of musical dancing notes.
Phenomenal. Legacy Building and Groundbreaking.
The Spirit of Kwanza, Awakens to You and is certainly not one to be missed.
Be sure to tune into the performance now made available to the public on the DIW Youtube Channel.
Kayla Harley, is a Dance Scholar, Advocate and Performance Critic for the Arts.
Founded Creative and Equal Opportunities Inc. an information and resource site for Professionals to help advance their pursuits in the business and industry. Its efforts in advocacy, artistic + professional development through the amplification of diverse leadership and economic growth are made possible by the support and presence of community partnerships.