Out of a dedication to breaking mental and physical constructs that cloud our collective vision and purpose within our communities, I offer this reflection. My writing attests to the ongoing process of redefining self, living in purpose, and being in alignment with a higher power, who I name as G-d and who I experience as always guiding me to the highest love. This ongoing process of reflection and redefinition requires shedding layers of falsehoods and aligning myself with spirit. I use the tree to symbolize this progression because the tree is an important symbol in Kwanzaa and in jazz dance, and my own practice is rooted in both of these traditions. The tree has also been a symbol of kinship, life, and diaspora in my own family’s history. A century old Magnolia grows in the front of my grandparents’ Crawfordville, Florida home, which has been in the family for generations. This became our ancestral home after my kin were stolen from their ancestral lands of West Africa. I believe their spirits live on within the Magnolia tree.
Intro part one: The Seed
A year ago, I endeavored to create a new choreographic process through the Nguzo Saba of Kwanzaa that I would be able to share with the dance community as a way to practice freedom. As time passed, I discovered that I wasn’t creating something new, but rather I was begging myself to return to my root of dance making, deepen my craft, and recognize I have always been an improvisational solo artist.
My practice of improvisation emerged over a childhood of family gatherings and school events where I was asked to dance, on the spot, with no pre-planned choreography. When I danced in my elementary school’s talent shows I wouldn’t set my dance prior to the performance. I would simply choose a song that I enjoyed and think of gestures and movements that I wanted to make sure to use while performing and go for it. I loved that my performances allowed me to explore my feelings and therefore created a slightly different performance each time. When I was chosen to perform a solo about the Little Rock Nine at my school, I hoped I would be able to use improvisation in my performance. The choreography was pre-set but the choreographer asked me to improv as a way to get me into character. Finding my choices highly intuitive, I was given the space to perform the solo as structured improvisation. As I matured and took more composition classes, I learned that “real” choreography was pre-set and pre-planned, and that what I was doing – improvisation– was unsophisticated. I carried this bias with me throughout my college years, where I learned that improvisation was a way to generate movement and a tool for professors to judge you on your “movement style.” The quirkier the better. The more noodly and squirmy the better. I learned that improvisation was meant to be totally explorative and only under extreme circumstances was it to be used in performance. Even in a contact improvisation course in my undergraduate program there was no emphasis on performance for an audience. Improvisation was for the experience of the dancer, meant to be cathartic, experimental and explorative.
Learning and taking on this devaluation of improvisation did not totally hinder me from creating improvisational work but it did hinder my investigation of my process. As an undergraduate, I felt like a fraud for not “setting” my work and I hid the fact that my works were improvisational from viewers. However, in my candidacy for my M.F.A. I set out to redefine myself as a choreographer and commit myself to a dance making process that aligned with my spiritual and social beliefs. In this renewed commitment I turned to Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba as they provided me a framework and a path toward creating an improvisational practice that emphasizes Africanist aesthetics, values, themes, and stories.
Intro Part Two: Planting the Seed
My mom and I started practicing Kwanzaa in 1991 when I was five years old. Kwanzaa is a Pan African holiday, created for African Americans by Dr. Maulana Karenga to remember our unique history and to celebrate family, community, and culture. It commemorates the first fruits season in African cultures and is a time of deep self and communitarian reflection. We were shifting our traditions and customs to reflect our African ancestors and embracing our African and African American heritage and sought to center our Black voices and stories. We began learning about our African ancestry, honoring our ancestors, valuing our Blackness, and distancing ourselves from Western, Eurocentric narratives.
As I reflect, I recognize that I have been heavily influenced by the Black Liberation Movement out of which Kwanzaa was born in 1966. In addition to practicing Kwanzaa, I have also worked with dance makers from that era such as Dianne McIntyre and have been drawn to musical scores of the Black Liberation movement such as those of Nina Simone and James Brown. When I first heard James Brown belt, “Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud!” I felt a surge of enthusiasm for my heritage and undeniable power that caused me to raise my head and look to a future where the norm was for Black people to feel blessed to be Black. I would dance around my living room to these words with vigor, power, and groove!
Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud!
We demand a chance to do things for ourselves
We're tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else
We're people, we like the birds and the bees
We'd rather die on our feet
Than be living on our knees.
I am deeply connected to the philosophies and practices of the Black Liberation and Black Arts movement. This deep sensing of connection to the past that informs my present choices and sets up my future nourishes my spiritual beliefs in energy and lifeforce as circular and cyclical. It is also reflected in my movement style, which flows in a circular pathway that symbolizes community.
For these reasons I decided that Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba provide a framework for me to explore, understand, and refine my choices as an improvisational solo artist in alignment with my African heritage, spiritual beliefs, and liberation practice. In this paper I demonstrate how Kwanzaa lays out a scaffolding of African values and principles that sculpted my improvisations into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The Nguzo Saba offered me an opportunity to shift my decisions in dance making to include the relationship between music and dance and honor my African ancestry, my movement choices to center Afrocentric perspectives and values (like considering the musicians and the audience as my community), and to practice agency as a form of freedom through dance improvisation.
The Roots: Kawaida and Kwanzaa
The first Kwanzaa celebration took place in 1966 at the heart of the Black liberation movement. Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa to unite the descendants of the African continent together as a collective unit, or as a “world African community1 ,” to obtain true freedom and liberation. The origins of Kwanzaa are rooted in Kawaida, an Afrocentric philosophy that centers African history, culture, and practice: Kawaida is self-consciously a cultural and communitarian philosophy and practice, focusing on culture and community as the twin pillars of its intellectual and practical focus, framework and foundation. Kawaida argues that the problem of unfreedom is first a problem of cultural hegemony by the dominant society2 .
Dr. Karenga defines a clear relationship among cultural revolution, struggle, and liberation. He also draws a connection between our individual minds and a collective freedom. Celebrating culture is a key component to the Kawaida philosophy, which stresses the importance of a cultural revolution for the collective liberation of African people:
Cultural revolution or struggle is key to the preparation and process of any other revolution or struggle. Until we break the monopoly the oppressor has on our minds, liberation is not only impossible, it’s unthinkable...Thus, the cultural revolution is tied to and a part of all forms of struggle for liberation3 .
Emphasizing struggle, Dr. Karenga implies that a cultural revolution is effortful, rigorous, and challenging. “But without the struggle for total liberation,” Dr Karenga states, “a dynamic, self affirming, self developing, past and future-facing culture cannot be created4 .” Key to sustaining this continuous struggle for cultural revolution is to constantly reflect, practice, and promote the Nguzo Saba, a set of moral beliefs that contribute to our individual and collective good, freedom, and liberation. Dr. Karenga’s emphasis on collective liberation through ongoing struggle for cultural revolution guides my approach to dance and pushes me to center my artwork through improvisational scores. In doing so, I exercise agency, practice freedom, and self-definition. And I also struggle against oppressive forces within the dance community that deem improvisation as a lesser artform. I take from Kawaida that there is power in creating in the present moment, carving out space for oneself, and reserving the right to choose one’s next step at any given moment.
Kwanzaa is a seven-day (December 26 to January 1) celebration birthed from Dr. Karenga’s research on Kawaida philosophy. On each of the seven days, we reflect on and put into practice one of seven principles, which are collectively called the Nguzo Saba. The seven principles of Nguzo Saba are:
Umoja (Unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (Creativity): To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
These principles are enacted through five fundamental activities: ingathering of the people, special reverence for the creator and creation, commemoration of the past, recommitment to our highest ideals, and celebration of the good. In the practice of Kwanzaa we consider past, present, and future. We remember and honor our past, acknowledge the contemporary contributions of people of African descent to the world and place our present selves at the center of our history, and work to ensure that our descendants have a beautiful world to inherit.
In my own process of dance-making, I discovered that the principles of Nguzo Saba each offer questions that help create depth in an improvisation:
Umoja: Are you coming to the stage whole, and in a harmonious way? Are you centered and grounded physically, and are you centering your voice and your history in your performance? How do you show the effort in your body and actions to maintain the “strive” in this principle as well as the intensity to embody the “endurance” that one needs in this principle?
Kujichagulia: Are you defining your own boundaries and self or are you allowing someone or some other thing define who you are? You must know who you are and where you are coming from to make informed decisions. Are you making decisions based on your own experiences and challenging the dominant societal choices? Are you accepting of all your physical features, and if so, how? How do you center your physical presence as worthy and of value? How do you carve space for yourself and set clear boundaries in the space? How are you defining space? How are you defining performance?
Ujima: Are you considering the other elements in the space? The space itself, the audience, the music, the walls, the floor etc. If you are in communion with all that is around you, you must relate to your surroundings. Do you know the conflicts of your surroundings? How do you straddle those problems until they are solved?
Ujamaa: Are you using the space wisely, fully? Do you know what was here before you? Who is in the space now? How will you make choices in the space that are beneficial to all who are in it? Are you sharing the space? How can you share the space with others, visibly and non-visibly?
Nia: What is your purpose in this performance? What is your message, or what do you want to say and why? Does what you are doing bring collective energy and consider the collective? How does your vocation with G-d inform your choices? How are you thinking of your vocation as a way to build or add to the physical and spiritual space?
Kuumba: What are you going to bring into the space that can be felt, and experienced for others to feel long after your performance? What beauty are you bringing into the space? What is the beauty that you are bringing into the space?
Imani: Did you trust the process? How can you trust the space, the people, and the time in the dance? How does trusting time relate to rhythm, flow, and weightiness? Can you allow yourself to trust the process? Does your trust allow there to be a tomorrow/a future for the next person in the space?
These inquiries not only helped me to be more three dimensional in my decisions in performances but also rooted me in my ancestral lineage and asked me to consider the collective in my art. In short, we do not make decisions in a vacuum; our decisions reflect our experiences, environments, and circumstances. I can tell my stories through dance improvisation and be a witness to my whole self in a self-defined form of agency.
The Trunk: The Relationship between Improvisation and Kwanzaa
To bridge Kwanzaa and its celebration of agency as freedom and improvisation I want to view improvisation through an Africanist value perspective. Dr. S. Ama Wray, whose dance methodology, Embodiology, grew out of her research on the elements of improvisations of African dance and music offers, “Improvisation in West African contexts resists contemporary dance practice’s universalising concepts […] Across Africa the performance of improvisation is enacted through existing movement vocabulary; performance is a critical display of embodied knowledge that has been retained and re-inscribed, leading to novel invention5 .” Improvisation is highly valued in African dances, which often integrate storytelling into the movements to highlight pivotal moments for community members such as rites of passage and weddings. I make the connection here of improvisational dance as embodying and celebrating community with Kwanzaa as a celebration of harvest and a time to collectively relate with one's community. It was important for me to find the connection with improvisation and Kwanzaa because it allowed me to deepen my cultural heritage and to understand that in my heritage, improvisation is choreography and is to be valued equally as choreography that is pre-set.
According to Dr. Wray, “African dance expert Tiérou states, ‘Africans tend to be uninterested in any art which lacks improvisation…[t]his is the essence of real, traditional African dance: continual improvisation and creation constantly renewed from within a well-defined group6 .’” The research of Dr. Wray and her contemporaries such as Jonathan Jackson and Kariamu Welsh-Asante support my understanding that improvisation is a staple in African dance. As a dance artist I honor my heritage through improvisation as performance. Following the principles of Kwanzaa and Nguzo Saba I am defining who I am on a layered level: as a human of the earth, a dance artist, and as a person of the African diaspora. I am defining what I value and how I design my artwork.
To further my connection between Kwanzaa and improvisation I turned to Danielle Goldman’s I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom. Goldman examines improvisational dance as a practice of freedom, and Kawaida as “a language and logic of liberation7 .” Goldman describes jazz music and improvisational dance as practices of freedom and agency, noting how dancer Patricia Williams remarked, “I associate jazz with a kind of freedom – a kind of breaking free8 .” Goldman further argues, “improvisation does not reflect or exemplify the understanding of freedom as a desired endpoint devoid of constraint. On the contrary, it actively resists it9 .” Goldman is highlighting that improvisation is not done without boundaries. I draw a connection between Goldman’s usage of the word “constraints” and Dr. Karenga’s “struggle.” I take from Goldman that freedom is a process without an endpoint, in the same way the Kawaida philosophy urges us to “constantly seek[ing] liberational or emancipatory modes of thinking and acting10 .” Freedom is a practice that must take place daily and cannot be pursued without effort or constraints.
Goldman critiques the stereotypes of improvised dance and “their emphasis on spontaneity and intuition” which tend to imply “a lack of preparation, thereby eliding the historical knowledge, the sense of tradition and the enormous skill that the most eloquent improvisers are able to mobilize11 .” Kwanzaa provides a framework to focus on the hidden rigor that is necessary to act inside of freedom, which as Goldman describes it must be a daily practice in relation “to an inevitably changing world12 .” Here I understand that improvised dance is to be grounded in the present happenings of my daily life and are crafted with thought and intention that include my location of place and time. The pursuit of freedom is in direct conversation with its environment where the presence of time: past, present, or future are taken into account and place: the location of the practice is important to fully embody freedom. Freedom takes place in relationship with its surroundings, and is ongoing. Therefore, improvised dance centers itself in multidimensional layered times and locations that reflect the dancer's disposition to cultural and historical context much like the Kawaida philosophy. Goldman explains, “I have come to believe that improvised dance involves literally giving shape to oneself by deciding how to move in relation to an unsteady landscape. To engage oneself in this manner, with a sense of confidence and possibility, is a powerful way to inhabit one’s body and to interact with the world13 .” Finding the correlation between the theory of improvised dance and the philosophy of Kawaida, the foundation of Kwanzaa has prepared me to continue my practice of freedom in the continuous struggle for liberation.
The Branches and its Fruits: The Choreographic Process
When beginning this process I had set out to root myself in an improvisational performance that embodied the Nguzo Saba so that I could feel mentally and physically liberated from Eurocentric dance making practices surrounding improvisation. I no longer wanted to feel inferior for wanting my art to be created in the present with the realities of my day, week, and my feelings in the dance at that very moment. I set out to discover how to make art rooted in my spiritual beliefs by centering my cultural truth and my ancestral heritage.
I have witnessed myself come full circle in my quest to feel worthy and valuable in my dance artistry. For so long I valued Eurocentric beliefs and western societal standards that I thought they were “natural.” The process of unearthing these Eurocentric values, standards, and measurements were hindering me from creating to my fullest potential. Suffering from anxiety and depression, I sought therapy in 2013, which helped me cultivate a practice of presentness. I learned that anxiety and depression can be exasperated through reliving past traumatic events and projecting far into the uncontrollable future. Through the art of improvisation, I can heal past traumas and dream a beautiful future (Kuumba and Imani) by being fully in the present. By aligning myself with new values that I define and grounding myself in harmony (Umoja and Kujichagulia) I am now able to serve my community and acknowledge my own destiny (Ujima and Nia) and share my resources abundantly with the world (Ujimaa).
Another fruit that has blossomed from this experience is the appreciation for restraints and boundaries and understanding the nuance between those ideas and oppression. Our best choices are made when we understand not only what is driving the intent of our choices but also what is narrowing our choices. In improvisation there must be set boundaries in order to create and innovate. Improvisation is not having endless amounts of choices without context or limitations- one would be overwhelmed with the limitless possibilities. But defining the constraint allows me to tell a full, detailed, and meaningful story. Using the principles as a constraint and a boundary charged me to stay connected and focused to that one story. It pushed me to deepen my understanding of each principle one at a time. Oppression erases all choices, while boundaries strengthen our comprehension of what choices/stories we have available to us. I became deliberate and aware of the choices I make during an improvisation by recentering and valuing my ancestry, heritage, and physical being. This recentering also supports my efforts to redefine the relationship I have with music. In Afrocentric and African Diasporic belief, music and dance are integrated and one element informs the other. Music is to be commanded by the dancer and the dancer is to make choices inside of the music. Music is another entry point to freedom as it allows us to transcend language and emphasize feelings and embodied experiences.
Challenging my philosophical beliefs by centering the Nguzo Saba at the heart and core of my relationship with the world has impacted my entire being. This practice has been transformative and paramount to my continuing growth as a human being who creates art. Improvisation and the Nguzo Saba are complementary to one another as they allow entryways into self-liberation.
Discovering that I could find the connection with two practices, Kwanzaa and improvisation, was liberating. This connection allows me to bring spirituality into my work and transforms me in performance. I become the physical manifestation of agency and freedom. I feel a great sense of joy and release. What an honor to chase the very thing that Nina Simone describes in “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”:
I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
What a feeling it is! I intend on sharing this process with my community for generations to come, to continue the work with other Black Liberation practitioners, and to create work that brings beauty into the world.
1. Karenga, Maulana. 2008. Kwanzaa, A Celebration of Family, Community, & Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. Pp 15-17. back to text
2. Karenga, Maulana. 2008. Kawaida, and Questions of Life and Struggle: African American, Pan African and Global Issues. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. Pp 4-5. back to text
3. Karenga, Kawaida, 5 back to text
4. Karenga, Kawaida, 20 back to text
5. Wray, S. Ama, 2017. “Towards Embodiology: Modelling Relations between West African Performance Practices, Contemporary Dance Improvisation and Seselelame,” PhD Diss., University of Surrey, 4. back to text
6. Wray, “Towards Embodiology,” 31. back to text
7. Karenga, Kawaida, 8 back to text
8. Danielle Goldman. 2010. I want to be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. P. 2. back to text
9. Goldman, I Want to Be Ready, 2-3. back to text
10. Karenga, Kawaida, 9. back to text
11. Goldman, I Want To Be Ready, 5. back to text
12. Goldman, I Want to be Ready, 3. back to text
13. Goldman, I Want to be Ready, 5. back to text
Goldman, Danielle. 2010. I want to be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. P. 2.
Karenga, Maulana. 2008. Kwanzaa, A Celebration of Family, Community, & Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. Pp 15-17.
Karenga, Maulana. 2008. Kawaida, and Questions of Life and Struggle: African American, Pan African and Global Issues. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. Pp 4-5.
Wray, S. Ama, 2017. “Towards Embodiology: Modelling Relations between West African Performance Practices, Contemporary Dance Improvisation and Seselelame,” PhD Diss., University of Surrey, 4.