A Dispatch from African Dance Master Baba Chuck Davis's Moving Memorial Services in Durham | Arts

A Dispatch from African Dance Master Baba Chuck Davis's Moving Memorial Services in Durham

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Baba Chuck Davis in 2009 - FILE PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • file photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Baba Chuck Davis in 2009
One memorial service wasn’t enough to honor Baba Chuck Davis. Ultimately, three separate commemorative events, hundreds of miles apart, were necessary to properly celebrate the life and achievements of the founder of the African American Dance Ensemble, a world-famous producer, choreographer, and dancer widely regarded, according to The New York Times, as “America’s foremost master of African dance.”

The first service occurred in New York during DanceAfrica, the annual festival of African diaspora dance and music that Davis founded forty years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. On the festival’s penultimate night, companies including Illstyle and Peace Productions celebrated the man BAM president emeritus Karen Brooks Hopkins called “a powerful spirit who motivated people every day of his life.” Before Sweet Honey in the Rock intoned, “The dead are not under the earth,” singer Carol Maillard told the capacity Brooklyn crowd, “He was 'Big Daddy' to us.”

But after leaving New York and the professional dance company he started there in the late seventies, Davis built his enduring legacy over four decades in Durham, and the two memorials here—a community celebration and concert at the Hayti Heritage Center on Friday, June 2, and a funeral service the following morning at Union Baptist Church—embodied both the universal concerns and the appeal of the self-styled “Dancer for Peace.”

His overtly ecumenical funeral began with an orchestra of around a dozen African percussionists who ushered in the Council of Elders, dressed in the striking white robes and headgear that symbolize sanctity and faith in the deceased’s transition to the spirit world in Ghanaian culture. A host of African dancers in multicolored robes and dresses followed, singing and dancing past Davis’s casket before filing out the sides of the filled auditorium.

Formal greetings and testimonials were presented on behalf of Governor Roy Cooper, the North Carolina General Assembly, and the U.S. House of Representatives after music director Carolyn Colquitt lead the Justice Theater Project’s Black Nativity choir in stirring, full-bodied renditions of “Goin’ Up Yonder” and “I’m Free.” Following Dr. B. Angeloe Burch Sr.’s eulogy, attendees filed out to a New Orleans brass band rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and formed a second line outdoors, waving white kerchiefs to “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

But the culmination of the Hayti community service the night before may have best emblematized Davis’s lifelong mission. After present and former AADE members began a kinetic dance of celebration in unison, each company member gave thanks in a series of solo turns directed to the earth, the air, the audience, and a portrait of Davis on stage.

Without warning, an audience member jumped onto the Hayti stage and was given the room to take a solo turn. Another followed as the dancers and percussionists looked on in joy. Then a stream of people made their way, one by one, up the left and right staircases to the stage to dance their respects for the man they’d come to honor. There were so many that the hosts had to repeatedly direct the dancers and percussionists upstage to make room. The dance went on until all who wanted it had their time at center stage. The older ones danced slowly, the young with exuberance. Many danced visibly in tears.

And in that moment we all saw what Baba Chuck had been telling us for decades. The world is the bantaba, the sacred dancing ground from the Mandinka tongue. And the bantaba is open to all, as it was that night, in a truly once-in-a-lifetime dance in Durham.


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