REVIEW: Kwanzaa Celebration with Coyaba Dance Theater at Dance Place

From the DC Dance Journalism Project

Coyaba Kwanzaa Celebration
By Christina Lindenmuth

Dance Place, an arts campus in the Brookland/Edgewood neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was bustling with commotion on the afternoon of December 18th.  People of all ages and ethnicities gathered for a Kwanzaa Celebration put on by Coyaba Dance Theater. Artistic Director Sylvia Soumah founded Coyaba Dance Theater in 1997 to bring West African culture through dance and music to the DC community.

Gullah Joe, a self proclaimed “edu-tainer,” appeared on stage in between performances throughout the show. Each time he would saunter out with his walking stick, dressed in traditional African clothing and singing a spiritual hymn. His job was to guide the audience through the evening’s performances by telling stories and lending explanations. His monologue was a mixture of silly jokes, crowd participation, and painful stories. “We tell these stories,” he said, “to keep tradition alive, or we are doomed to make the same mistakes.”

The rest of the show was a variety of dance and music from Coyaba and a few special guests. The first number was a step performance by the Dance Place Step Team explaining the origins of Kwanzaa. Their high energy and explosive percussion set the tone for the rest of the evening. They returned later in the show with a medley that took us on an emotional journey, with songs like “Black Bird” by India Jean-Jacques and “Sinner Man” by Nina Simone. The last segment of the piece began with words projected on the wall behind them in darkness, such as “chaos”, “damaged”, and “black”, as the dancers shouted in unison and danced up a storm of crumping and hard-hitting hip hop. The last word to appear on the wall was “change”, and the spotlight came up on a single girl surrounded by the other dancers who had collapsed on the floor around her. Then, they all danced to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” with an infectious beat and powerful lyrics like “all my life I had to fight” and “we’re gonna be alright”.

The other guest performance was from Bmore Houseful, a house dance performance company founded by pioneer house dancer Esperonto Bean. Their performance showcased three very talented, very different soloists demonstrating the fluid, walking-on-air-like footwork that is so characteristic of house dancing. They sometimes danced in unison, and other times cyphered in a circle, allowing the rhythm to guide their improvised movement. The music selection was all deep house, a soulful fusion of funk and electronic music with meaningful, emotional vocals. The crowd seemed entranced by the melodies and the mesmerizing footwork until the very end when they erupted in praises and cheers.

The main attraction, the Coyaba Dance Theater, appeared to us first with a performance by a group of men on the bongos. The audience was clapping along as each of the musicians came forward for a solo, each with his own unique rhythm and attitude. The energy on stage spilled over into the crowd, as their smiles and laughter were too contagious to avoid. The older ladies of Coyaba, Moving Wisdom, came out on stage and delighted us with a performance that highlighted each woman’s unique style and strength. Next, we enjoyed a dance by the youngest members of Coyaba, who looked about five to seven years old, whose performance quality and ability to memorize their music and choreography was impressive. The rest of the show was filled with performances from the older West African dance classes, each with their own colorful costumes and music selection.

The West African dances, mainly choreographed by Soumah, had elements of percussion, footwork, free and expressive arm and head movements, hip isolations, and praise. One thing I really enjoyed was that unlike other dance forms, the West African style seemed to encourage a unique interpretation from each dancer. No two performers danced the same. The similarities among the performers all came from the energy, the smiles, the joy, and the worship they expressed. In an unrelenting finale each class got to come forward and do a short snippet of choreography to the live music being played by the drummers, and even after the curtains closed the music and the dancing continued long into the evening.