New York Today: A Kwanzaa Tradition on a Harlem Stage

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Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, a weeklong holiday that celebrates the values of African heritage in African-American culture. And for the last 36 years, Forces of Nature, a critically acclaimed dance group, has produced an end-of-year Kwanzaa show in New York City.

We visited a rehearsal to find out how the group incorporates the holiday’s message into the show, “Regeneration Night,” which they will perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on Dec. 30.

On an otherwise quiet evening last week, while some New Yorkers blew out Hanukkah candles and others were preparing for Christmas, a deft beat of African drums roared from within St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Harlem. In a spartan dance studio inside the church, about a dozen male and female dancers gathered.

Rehearsals began with the usual call for attention, borrowed from West Africa. One of the female dancers called out: “Ago,” or “Listen.” The rest of the group quieted down and replied in unison: “Ame,” or “We’re listening.”

The dancers are led by Abdel Salaam, 67, the founder of the group and a veteran dancer who also directs DanceAfrica, billed as the nation’s largest festival of African dance.

Artists build upon the past they inherit,” Mr. Salaam said. “They try to apply it in the now, with the hope of establishing a vision that will carry into the future. Kwanzaa is all about legacy.”

For a holiday that commemorates identity, “Regeneration Night” is meant to empower viewers by appropriating African heritage and making it contemporary, Mr. Salaam said. The show includes traditional drum calls, rituals and libations alongside hip-hop beats and a performance by Les Nubians, a celebrated French musical duo with roots in Chad.

The group’s two-hour performance also aims to imbue Kwanzaa’s “nguzo saba,” or the seven principles of African heritage: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

In the show, the principle of unity connects generations: High-school students from Harlem dance, and community elders are honored. The principle of purpose is seen in the dance’s themes of racism, gender and social equality.

“It’ll work if people end up entertained, educated, inspired, and if it provokes a conversation,” Mr. Salaam said.

Source: nytimes