Duke conference discusses future of African diaspora dance

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 08:34 PM

 In the “Afro-Future,” a dance instructor named Telebrea doesn’t hold in-person dance classes, but rather connects to the latest generation of mixed-gender, mixed-race students through neural implants, guiding their movements using tiny electrical charges.

Traditional black social dance is still taught in the home, but rare. Dances such as “The Running Man” are ancient.

This is Duke University professor Thomas DeFrantz’s humorous take on black dance a century from now. He read this story Saturday afternoon in Duke’s White Lecture Hall, which was filled with scholars, educators and dancers who tried to imagine what form black dance would take in the future.

The panel discussion was part of a three-day “Dancing the African Diaspora” conference at Duke that welcomed theories on black performance and introduced workshops ranging from Haitian choreography to definitions of black/queer dance.

Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal said by the year 2064, the question will be how society archives “blackness” in the digital realm.

Younger generations are now learning their dance moves through YouTube videos rather than through the learned traditions of parents or grandparents. Music labels are more concerned about making profits than preserving the history of black dance movement, Neal said, and, for example, connections between historic black dances and Beyonce’s choreography aren’t deemed that important.

“This is not the genius of one, individual person,” Neal said of celebrity dance moves. “... Every time I hear Miley Cyrus described as the Queen of Twerk, I think, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’”

Also part of the panel was choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who in 1984 founded the Brooklyn-based dance ensemble Urban Bush Women, which brings under-told stories of oppressed people to the stage through dance. The Urban Bush Women performed at Duke Friday and Saturday as part of the group’s 30th-anniversary tour.

She said black performance in the future will still carry on stories of the disenfranchised or enslaved.

Black dance will still “carve out an identity, a language, a culture in the face of oppression,” Zollar said. “... What is so much a part of our spirit, and how that spirit is transformed, I don’t know, but it will be there.”

She said even if family dance traditions don’t get passed down through the generations, the dances may remain relevant outside of the nuclear family, such as within the friend or gang dynamic.

Zollar added that youth always push boundaries and project the new movements of black dance forward.

“You thought you were rebelling until you found out your parents have done the same thing,” she said.