In this article, we underscore the Black Arts Movement as a critical reference point for understanding Black power and liberation through dance. First, we highlight the importance of Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus’s work, which served as a precursor to the Black Arts Movement, and how they used African and African diaspora dance forms as cultural symbols of Black empowerment. We also look at the contributions of Halifu Osumare and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar as movers and shakers beyond the Black Arts Movement. As beneficiaries of these four luminaries in the field of dance, we are committed to upholding their legacy. Therefore, we use an oral history dialogue format to discuss the importance of passing African and African diaspora dance forms to the next generation.
It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Assata Shakur, one of the most iconic Black women leaders of the Black Liberation Army, writes with urgency by stating twice that Black people have a duty to fulfill. Duty in this context is a labor of love. If we could add anything to the brilliance of this quote, we would propose a third duty: the duty to remember our African history (Clarke 1968; Dillard 2012). In this article, we show how African diaspora people have engaged in this duty to remember our African history using non-written forms as primary mediums for passing down generational knowledge (Finnegan 2012; Okpewho 1992).
We seek to advance the body of work on oral histories of African diaspora people, specifically through West African dance, which has been severely under-researched and ignored due to “the white cultural hegemony within dance in higher education” (Amin 2016, 17). Despite systemic and epistemic erasure, we recognize that there is growing scholarship on African diaspora dance and West African dance that has emerged over the past few decades. For example, Daniel’s (2005) work puts African diaspora rituals in dialogue with the power of dance and focuses on bodily knowledge as a vehicle for accessing history and intuition. Welsh, Diouf, and Daniel (2019) describe African dance as a part of a larger vision of music and storytelling, a reflection of the cosmos, and a bridge to nature and future generations. Abiola (2022) posits that African and African Diaspora dances showcase a complex social and cultural system that houses the narratives and history of African peoples. Lastly, Amin (2016) reminds us that “dance is a reference point for the study of human lived experience” (17). We intend to build on this dynamic body of work through an oral history dialogue format.
We aim to disrupt a master narrative that African diaspora peoples’ history was destroyed due to enslavement and that the continent of Africa has made no valuable contributions to the world (Clarke 1968; Miller 1999; Turner 1990). Our work serves as a counter-narrative (Ladson-Billings 1998), and we argue that African dance can be used as a socio-political tool. We intend to explore the following research question: what contributions have Black women dancers in the past and present made toward correcting systemic erasures of Black women’s diverse embodiments in order to continue the legacy of oral history through West African and African diaspora dance forms? As Black women dance teachers in higher education, we believe it is our duty to pass down West African embodiments to the next generation. In the subsequent section, we will examine the impact of four Black women luminaries in the field of dance alongside the Black Arts Movement to show how these dancers and this historical period have powerfully influenced who we are as teaching-artists.
In the United States, the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975) played a significant role in creating the milieu necessary for the emergence of an African diaspora worldview (Abiola 2021; Gittens 2012; Smethurst 2006). Alongside this movement, we consider how our ancestors, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, set the groundwork for developing meaningful West African and African diaspora relationships through dance. As cultural brokers, they carried forward the oral history tradition of African diaspora and African dance forms. Additionally, we highlight the dance journeys of Halifu Osumare and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, our elders, who also continue the legacy of oral history and show us the power of narrating African diaspora stories through dance.
Dunham and Primus Make the Way for the Black Arts Movement
Although Dunham and Primus had distinct dance careers starting in the 1940s, Haskins (1990) shows that there are many striking similarities in their commitments to use dance as a form of activism. First, they both used anthropology to explore African and Caribbean dances within their cultural contexts (Haskins 1990). Second, they applied their knowledge and experience as anthropologists to mainstream concert dance to educate and entertain. Haskins (1990) observes this dynamic, writing that Dunham “took ethnic dances from Africa, Latin America, and the United States and choreographed them like theater” (100). Primus would present a lecture after performing to underscore the “symbolic significance of some of the dances” (117). Third, Dunham and Primus both consciously cultivated African and African diaspora relations through their leadership in the global dance world (Haskins 1990; Library of Congress 2013). In 1959, Primus was appointed as the director of Liberia’s first performing arts school (Haskins 1990). In 1966, Dunham strengthened her cultural ties to West Africa when she was invited to train the dancers of the National Ballet of Senegal and serve as the advisor of the First World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Library of Congress 2013). Therefore, Dunham and Primus’s groundbreaking work in advancing African diaspora dance forms would give “indication of how Black bodies would empower themselves during the fiery decades of the 1960s and beyond” (Gittens 2012, 50).
The Black Arts Movement and the Cultural Significance of African Dance
The Black Arts Movement emerged alongside the Black Power Movement and involved politically active poets, writers, dancers, painters, dramatists, and musicians (Smethurst 2006). The Black Arts Movement's significance derives from its refusal to cater to the white gaze. Smethurst (2018) expounds,
But never before, I think, was such artistic activity made an absolute political priority and linked to the equally emphatic drive for the development and exercise of black self-determination within a large black political-cultural movement in the United States. (15-16).
The Black Arts Movement allowed Black people to tell their stories and make art. The Movement had several goals – among them, and perhaps most significant for this study, was to reclaim African history and culture (Clarke 1968). Black people were beginning to change their perception of Africa, thus allowing the cultural exchange of information between African diasporans and African people. This effort pushed against the dominant American educational system, which intentionally kept Black Americans ignorant of African history. The U.S. Black Arts Movement created a milieu that allowed Black people to be curious about who they were and provided the materials and skills needed to explore their ancestry and develop a sense of pride. African dance emerged as a connector between African and African diaspora people during this era. Gittens (2012) explains how West African dance helped to advance the Black Arts Movement:
Artists within the genre of Black dance in the United States recognized traditional African dance styles for both their techniques and their significance as a cultural symbol that connected the diaspora to its African roots. What is particularly worth noting is the increased interaction between Africans and African diasporans during this period as a result of political activism and African independence. (51)
Interestingly, the need to center West African dance as a cultural symbol was not only happening in the U.S., but also in newly liberated African countries like Ghana. President Kwame Nkrumah commissioned dance to become an official academic department at the University of Ghana and to house the Ghana Dance Ensemble as a way of preserving history through the performing arts (Adinku 2004). This dance institute would become the hub for many African diasporans to train in African dance forms (Osumare 2018). Furthermore, as African and African diasporan people attained liberation and deeper consciousness of diasporic belonging, they recognized their capacity to learn from each other.
Osumare and Zollar as Movers and Shakers Beyond the Black Arts Movement
Osumare and Zollar were both influenced by the Black Arts Movement and – through their work – moved beyond it. Osumare shares how Black Arts Movement inspired her:
I began researching Africa and what dance meant among the various cultures of Central and West Africa. I researched dance on the slave plantation… As I did that I began to internalize how much dance was a part of our survival. (Forsgren 2020, 263)
Forsgren (2020) examines how Osumare’s revelation served as the impetus for consistently performing at the Black Panthers headquarters in Oakland during Sunday showcases and at community rallies. Osumare states, “I began to see dance as a part of ancestral legacy, and I saw what I was doing in the sixties as a part of continuing that legacy” (Forsgren 2020, 263). On the other hand, Zollar’s connection to Black Arts Movement was through her involvement in theater during her undergraduate and graduate years (Frazier 2007). While attending predominantly white institutions during the 1970s, she often felt isolated in her dance program so Black theater spaces provided a way for her to experiment and begin to develop her style as a dancer and choreographer (Frazier 2007).
Although the Black Arts Movement started to lose momentum in the late 1970s, Osumare and Zollar soared to new heights as dancers. Osumare founded the non-profit dance institution Everybody’s Creative Arts Center (ECAC) in 1977 and the Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century (BCM) in 1989 (Osumare 2018). In her memoir, Osumare describes her life mission as fearlessly dedicated to the politics of recognition, emphasizing the intersections of her three identities as being Black, a woman, and a dancer (Osumare 2018). In 1984, Zollar founded her dance company, Urban Bush Women, with the unique mission of using cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. George-Graves (2010) describes Zollar’s dynamic choreographic process which incorporates singing, narration, and storytelling: “By attending to Diaspora traditions that are complex, blended, ambiguous, and constantly shifting, they challenge notions of fixed racial identity” (6).
The powerful contributions of Dunham, Primus, Osumare, and Zollar provide a blueprint for uplifting African diaspora oral history through dance, thus correcting the erasures of Black women’s diverse embodiments. In the subsequent section, we will use an oral history dialogue as a method to show our duty to continue the legacy of these four luminaries.
We take a narrative approach, using oral history as an ideal method for capturing our life events as Black women and dancers. According to Alexander and Austin (2021), “Oral tradition, the process by which people orally transmit testimony about the past from one person to another, is the only true way for the history of African people to be fully understood and appreciated” (26). Additionally, Forsgren (2020) proposes that a Black feminist orality is both a tradition and method that is often reflected in the work of Black women writers who theorize from their lived experiences.
In alignment with feminist approaches to oral history, we use a dialogue format to ensure that our process was non-hierarchical (Sangster 1998). This research design allows us to co-construct knowledge through a dialogue format. Our process included identifying discussion points, recording our dialogue through the Zoom video platform, and having it professionally transcribed. After reading through the transcript several times to check for accuracy, we carefully identified themes that we elaborate at the end of the Oral History Dialogue section.
Oral History Dialogue
Since 2017, we have co-taught and designed interdisciplinary courses at Connecticut College that include dance, research, travel, and performance. Due to our deep commitment to connecting dance with history, we were given funding to take our students on multiple trips to Ghana and Senegal to personally witness the house of slaves and slave dungeons, these historical sites display prison-like conditions that enslaved Africans endured before experiencing the horrors of the middle passage. We took our students on a historical journey to the past in order to discover new ways of seeing in the present. We challenged them to channel their experiences in these historical spaces into choreography that would be performed publicly. Through a process of deep reflection, we encouraged our students to think about what is their responsibility in continuing to advance the history and stories of enslaved African people? The goal of our class was to explore how African dance can be a powerful pathway for understanding systems of oppression, challenging stereotypes about African peoples, and using movement as a healing modality.
Humanizing African and African Diaspora People through Oral History
Truth: I think it's important to zone in on the power of our stories, music, poetry which has always been a rich tradition that we inherited from Africa. African people aren't unique in having an oral history, but what is unique about our experience as African diaspora people is that because so much was stolen from us including our language, culture, and family structures, oral history has allowed us to maintain our connection to Africa. Oral history was the way that we humanized ourselves within a dehumanizing set of circumstances.
Shani: Oral history brings things into context in terms of how we live and work. Down to the stories, traditions, and all those old sayings that our parents and grandparents told us, like: “If you get a dollar save a quarter,” “walking in tall cotton now,” and that famous one, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” All of these old sayings are a part of our oral history, and it’s really fascinating to see their value and learn more about our Indigenous practices and ways of being. As we learn this knowledge that comes from our African roots, there’s a next level within this affirmation of us realizing who we are through our stories that allows for us to step forward into our collective liberation.
Truth: This is how we heal on a generational level from everything we've been through because of enslavement and colonialism. I see myself as a dancer, as a storyteller, continuing these stories of what has happened to us as a people. Looking at the Black Arts Movement and its influences helps me to see so much about how the past, present, and the future is something that I'm embodying through dance.
The Influence of the Black Arts Movement
Shani: Yes, I agree. Being inside my house, growing up on the coattails of the Black Arts Movement where the philosophy was, “Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.” To show my pride, I embraced my natural hair and wore my sweatshirt that said, “Happy I'm Nappy,” with my tutu, pink tights, pink ballet shoes, and my high top fade as my bun with a rat tail. This level of cultural pride allowed me to see myself outside of a white gaze, and in this space, I could be nappy and happy.
Truth: Growing up in Oakland, the home of the Black Panther Party and a huge presence of the Nation of Islam, I feel like my parents absorbed those ideas from those organizations and took on this new identity of what it means to be Black. So, starting African dance at six years old, and my parents supporting that, shows their openness to me and my siblings fully expressing ourselves as Black people. I didn't realize how much that was influencing me until very recently in my adulthood, because when I went to a predominantly white institution for undergrad, I started doing a lot of choreography at that time. What I started to produce were African diaspora stories, like dances depicting the middle passage and West African dance pieces. I didn't think about it consciously, but it was almost as if I was downloaded with this cultural knowledge during my childhood and my youth. I realized that the arts could be used as a platform to advance new conversations and to make people think critically. And I never thought about it as like, wow, I was being shaped by all these different ideologies that my parents passed down to me. I just thought it was just me doing my thing, you know? So, I think the influence of the Black Arts Movement and other Black Liberation Movements created this obligation, and I don't mean obligation in a negative way, for me to tell our stories.
Shani: Yeah, my parents were very much involved in the Black Liberation and Black Arts Movements in Greensboro, North Carolina where, you know, the Woolworth sit-ins played a big role in the Civil Rights Movement. My mom went to Bennett College and my dad went to Malcolm X Liberation University, a former technical school that trained technicians to then go serve in Africa. They both created spaces for local Black artists to perform and formed a Greensboro chapter of the National Black United Front. I was born the year of the Greensboro Massacre, what was supposed to be a peaceful nonviolent protest against the KKK. My parents helped to organize it. My mother was on her way to the protest but childcare was an issue on that day, so she had to stay home with me. So, being born into this climate has always been politicized in my work and how I see myself.
Truth: That’s what this movement did for us, it allowed us to transform how we saw ourselves. So even though we have to show up in white spaces, we know that there is another way of seeing ourselves that can counter the constant assaults on our identity, our beauty, our skin, and the way we express ourselves. We are constantly being assaulted in the greater mainstream culture. The ideology, thinking, and philosophy of the Liberation and Black Arts Movements gave us another way to exist in this world.
Shani: Yes, and I think that this radical mental shift also gave us permission to experiment artistically. Even thinking about Black theater and spoken word during this time when we refused to speak the “King's English” on stage. We started to liberate ourselves through the language that we spoke, sung, and wrote, and rewrite our narratives through our bodies to reflect who we were more authentically as human beings.
Truth: Absolutely. One of the gifts of the Black Arts Movement is this understanding that there is an intersection between arts and politics.
Choreography as Activism and Creating Body Narratives
Shani: This makes me think about Diane McIntyre and Ntozake Shange’s work, the term choreopoem that emerged just after the Black Arts Movement as a result of their collaboration. You know Ntozake Shange took dance classes with Diane McIntyre and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar took classes and worked with her too. I got to share one of my pieces, Swing Us Sky Rainbow, with them. I was doing a lot of research on domestic violence and sexual assault on women and utilized the Power and Control Wheel of Violence to inform this choreographic process. I looked at different stages of when the actual abuse happens; the explosion, to afterwards when the abuser tries to cover it up with gifts. Then you're walking on eggshells not wanting the blow up to happen again. It’s a pattern of behaviors. I worked to generate movement that reflected the sensibilities and experiences of women living inside the wheel and to pay homage to those who don’t make it out alive. Using a lot of gestures to communicate behavior, the cast of women scurry down on the ground and across the floor. We catch and carry each other. We did a slow-motion walking meditation as we dropped rose petals and danced very mechanical and sensual phrases too. Using flowers, lollipops, and boxes as props to show the gift giving stage. Perhaps even closer to the rhythm of reality, this choreographic process invited me to dig deeper to find a more authentic language that fully expressed and represented us. To cultivate a feeling of humanity into the work opens myself up to multiple sensibilities as I explore the full spectrum of our identities and artistic expressions through body narratives.
Teaching West African Dance in Higher Education
Truth: When we began collaborating and teaching together, specifically in our first course where we took a group of six students on a trip to Senegal, we went through this whole process of using West African dance as a platform for social justice and telling these stories. I didn't realize how so many of our practices were feminist practices – highly collaborative, co- constructing practices – until I got into graduate school. I started reading bell hooks (1994) and recognized that a lot of the approaches that we took affirmed the humanity of our students and gave them space to process through journaling. We circled up a lot to really debrief experiences. Dance is a very vulnerable art form, so we had to consciously create a unique learning experience that I'm still trying to wrap my mind around.
Shani: Yeah... that's true. Our approach to teaching and learning is also about holding space for our students to explore their own identities and intersections with the practice of West African dance. I’m constantly learning more about my own identity in the process.
Truth: Yeah, I mean, African dance has changed my life. It has literally been an intervention in terms of me not being swept away by the tsunami of white supremacy and white culture. I mean, you can just get swept and drowned in all of this, but what African dance did for me in many ways was implicitly affirm my body when I did the movements. And they came out organically and naturally. It affirmed that my body was created for this dance form. So, when I think about West African dance, and how it has changed my life, it wasn't that these African dances that I'm learning were designed to be political, but within a world dominated by white supremacy African dance forms become a form of activism.
Shani: Yes, this is why I continue to do the work of carving out space for the knowledge of West African Dance to come through. And for students to travel to African countries to experience Africa firsthand. We've had conversations about how this looks in terms of curriculum in higher education, especially at historically white institutions; how there is still work to be done so that African Diaspora dance forms can be considered a viable technique inside U.S. institutions.
Mothering through Dance
Shani: The practice of West African dance has impacted and affirmed me in my identity as a mother. I was told not to have children because it might jeopardize my career as a professional dancer, but going against that advice and having children has been a fascinating journey. I love how in West African dance classes, babies and children are always seen and welcome. My identity as a mother influences my artistic work and it’s important to me that my children know and participate in what I do. Motherhood has taught me about the methodology of patience, problem solving, and not taking things too seriously or personally. It created a deeper sense of responsibility, deep bonds, and meaning in my life, for sure. I have applied that insight to other women in my life. I get to be mothered and mother them. I get to become their midwives as they are mine, especially when birthing new projects and visions. I feel, like, an ancient magical light that we inherited in us, as Black women, by our ancestors. It permeates through our souls, especially when we create together.
Our five themes: (1) Humanizing African and African Diaspora People through Oral History, (2) The Influence of the Black Arts Movement, (3) Choreography as Activism and Creating Body Narratives, (4) Teaching West African Dance in Higher Education, and (5) Mothering through Dance speak back to the master narrative that has dismissed non-written oral forms of history. We use West African dance forms as a way to show how African diaspora people have used dance as a vehicle for maintaining our history. Additionally, our themes reveal that African inspired dance forms are more than performance, they are a way of life and a way of engaging deeply in the world and finding our place in it. They show that West African and African diaspora dances are forms of resistance; and at the same time, they are our medicine. Most importantly these themes have implications for the need to continue to advance research on African diaspora oral history and Black women’s diverse embodiments, and how this method can be used as a paradigm for deep learning, teaching, and healing in higher education.
In this article, we honor our ancestors, Dunham and Primus, and our elders, Osumare and Zollar. As beneficiaries of their bold trailblazing work in the field of dance, we are committed to upholding their legacy of using African and African diaspora dance forms to fill in the “gaps” of history that European and white American enslavers created by trying to erase the stories and histories of Africa (Abiola 2021). Through our dance practice, we discovered that African diaspora people have maintained the embodied elements of their history through non-written forms such as dance. Here we join Dunham, Primus, Osumare, and Zollar in the tireless work of correcting the erasures of Black women’s diverse embodiments through West African dance oral history. In closing, we revisit the wisdom of our revolutionary elder, Assata Shakur (1987, 67), who inspires us to remember that “we have nothing to lose but our chains” and teaching African dance to the next generation allows us to do just that.
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