The pulse of drums spills out onto the street from an upper window of the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, a big Art Deco building in the Lakeside district of Oakland. Up on the third floor, a battery of eight drummers is lined up against one wall of a large dance studio, vibrating the air with their music.
Twelve dancers -- men and women all dressed in black rehearsal clothes -- move with fierce and graceful undulations through the space. They dance together, totally synchronized, then suddenly break out into individual gestures: shaking their hips, stepping and stomping.
This is Dimensions Dance Theater, one of the oldest African American dance companies in the country. They had their first full season in 1973. Most companies don’t stay in business that long, as dance is not a highly-funded art form. Deborah Vaughan, artistic director of Dimensions, says that making it this far has meant a fair amount of struggle.
“It’s a challenge,” she says. “But one of the things that keeps you motivated is the work itself.”
A rich history
The work of Dimensions Dance Theater is exploring and presenting African and African-derived dance. Vaughan herself has been doing it since she was a young girl growing up in Oakland. When she was 12, a friend brought her to Ruth Beckford’s modern and Afro-Haitian dance classes, run through the city’s parks and recreation department. She fell in love immediately with dancing and performing, but says she was also fascinated by learning the history of the dances she was doing.
She went on to study modern, ballet, West African, South African, and Central African dance forms. She earned a graduate degree in dance from Mills College in the early '70s, around the time of the Black Arts Movement.
The Black Arts Movement was a kind of sister to the Black Power movement that flourished in the late '60s and early '70s. The term “Black Arts” was coined by the poet Amiri Baraka, who argued for cultural sovereignty through art-making that refused to assimilate to mainstream, white norms. At its height, artists all over the country were celebrating blackness, digging into African American history and culture, and exploring the roots of that culture. The Bay Area was a hub for such artists, and Vaughan says Dimensions Dance Theater was born out of that influence.
At Mills , Vaughan and fellow graduate student Elendar Barnes were studying the roots of African American dance forms, and they wanted to use that material in their thesis concert. They choreographed dances using modern, jazz, and Haitian forms, and mixed them with spoken word. “What we were trying to do in that concert is just show the diversity of dance that was African-based,” she says.
The concert was so successful that people approached them later to ask when the next show would be. So Vaughan and Barnes, along with another dance graduate student, Shirley Brown, decided to start a dance company. They also began a school to train dancers, but money was tight and funding was scarce. So Vaughan says once they left Mills, they danced wherever they could, including churches and other locations not necessarily made for dancing. From the beginning, Dimensions focused on a range of styles-- Haitian, modern, jazz, and even ballet. This diverse focus was pretty unusual, and still is today.
A continuing legacy
Since its founding, Dimensions has premiered over 50 evening-length dance works -- that’s a lot for a company its size. Many of these pieces were choreographed and directed by Vaughan herself, but the company has also collaborated with many other artists.
The work ranges from early pieces like “My People”, set to the poetry of Langston Hughes, to “Common Ground,” a collaboration with the Lily Cai Chinese Dance company that brought African and Chinese dance forms together. Vaughan has also collaborated with master musicians like South African horn legend Hugh Masakela, percussionist John Santos, and the late Bay Area jazz trumpeter Kahlil Shaheed. They have also been running free and low-cost youth programs for 20 years, and a junior company that has performed throughout the United States. Through it all, Vaughan says Dimensions has stayed true to its original mission.
“The company came together to preserve and perpetuate African and African-derived dance forms,” she says. “To that end, I think that we are [still] following our mission in bringing those things to stage.”
That commitment is shown in the piece that will premiere at Dimensions’ 40th anniversary celebration. It’s called Rhythms of Life: Down the Congo Line. The choreography highlights the way that original dances from the Congo have traveled around the world-- in this case to Brazil, Cuba and New Orleans.
Vaughan says that even though many kinds of cultural dance are practiced in the Bay Area, true cross-collaboration is not that common. So she commissioned four different choreographers to make the different sections of the piece: exuberant and joyous Congolese dance by Herve Makaya; the intense Afro-Cuban Palo to connect to ancestors by José “Cheo” Rojas; celebratory New Orleans second line by LaTanya d. Tigner; and fierce Brazilian maculele, danced with sticks, by Isaura Oliveira.
Oliveira says this kind of collaborative performance is unusual for her. But it also seems like a natural outgrowth of teaching at the Malonga Center, where Dimensions is based, and where many styles of dance are taught.
“We walk through the halls and see each others’ class,” says Oliveira. “The music meets in the space, and then we visit each other.” She says they recognize elements of their own dance in others. They see and feel their shared roots. “So it is around, and surround, and among us -- alive.”
An act of love
In the steamy rehearsal studio, Oakland poet Marvin White recites an incantation as the dancers slowly move into place for the next section.
“Tonight we are here to celebrate, to use our bodies in service of our people. Because dance still means we, who believe in the push and pull of the universe. Dance still means we who are celebrating, so children can see us in an act of love…”
Standing off to one side, Deborah Vaughan watches as her dancers stomp, leap and glide across the floor. She says that even now, she is still learning and discovering more about these dances. “When it comes to the African diaspora, I mean it could just go on forever, you know?” And from the rapt attention on her face, it’s clear that 40 years has not dimmed her enthusiasm.
Dimensions Dance Theater's 40th Anniversary Celebration takes place at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Saturday October 5, 2013, at 8pm.