DanceAfrica’s Spirit Walkers Ready Themselves For a Rich Cultural Showcase

Abdel Salaam, Dance Africa Artistic Director.

By: C. Zawadi Morris

Every year for the past 47 years, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has been host to DanceAfrica, the largest African dance festival in the country. And each year, the producers select one of the 54 countries in Africa to bring into the spotlight.

DanceAfrica’s Artistic Director Abdel Salaam often travels to the country first and spends weeks immersing himself in the culture and meeting the people, before selecting a traditional dance troupe to invite back to Brooklyn for the annual celebration.

This year, Salaam chose Cameroon: “I had never been to Cameroon, and I wanted to experience what was different about it that we could bring here to the Americans,” Salaam said. “So I and my colleagues from Brooklyn Academy of Music made a trip to Cameroon.”

“I wanted to go to the rainforest; to the origin of communities, the first communities that start to develop and evolve. Because, who would choose to live in the rainforest? But there are certain groups of the people– the Baka, the Twa– that survived in the rainforest for 50,000 years and were considered anthropologically to be the mothers and fathers of the human family. But I wanted to meet them, the ‘ascendants’ of the families who’d been there 50,000 years too.”

And what a journey it was for Salaam. He recounted a six-hour drive into the bush, then a long walk where his group encountered quicksand, fire ants and all of the harshest elements imaginable. But still, once inside, what most might have seen as an environment of aggression, Salaam understood it as protection.

“The environment protected us from the outside world, and our ancestors were able to survive there almost unscathed from generation to generation. So, I wanted to bring the element of that experience to DanceAfrica this year,” he said.

“Everything is connected to that very ancient spirit, as well as the construct of the calabash,” he added. “Because the calabash is this living vegetable energy which you drink from; you use it in ritual; you travel with it; it becomes a musical instrument. Metaphorically, it has the shape of a woman that’s pregnant, so it also deals with fertility. The calabash becomes the embodiment of culture, of a living culture.”

Salaam opens the show each year with a memorial tribute to the ancestors, followed by a dance production by the Spirit Walkers, who then bring in the energy of community and connectivity.

“That energy is called the law of vibration,” Salaam said. “You know, vibration pulls from the past and carries it into the present. So the Spirit Walkers’ [performance] does that: grabs something else from the past to marry it to what is happening within the present to then develop a vision of what could be.”

This year’s set design at DanceAfrica is a beautiful, plush rainforest, while the most prominent elements of Cameroon culture resonate throughout the entire program. This year also will be the first time the SpiritWalkers collaborate with the young dancers of the Billie’s Youth Arts Academy as one dance production.

“Cameroon is the origin of communities in the rainforest and the calabash of cultures, rhythm, dance, clothing, music, water, sustenance, and how we use that as a people… but living within the vegetable kingdom,” said Salaam.

DanceAfrica 2024: The Origin of Communities / A Calabash of Cultures, runs from Friday, May 24 through Monday, May 27, with choreography classes, a panel discussion, film screenings, live student performances, an outdoor marketplace, an ancestral tribute performance and much more!

To purchase tickets, go here.

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