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Durham pays tribute to Baba Chuck Davis

Poet Darrell Stover described him with three phrases: “great heart, great intellect, great spirit.”

Stover was among the many students, dancers, artists and friends who came to pay their tributes and tell stories about Baba Chuck Davis, founder of the African American Dance Ensemble, who died last month. Stover read from one of his poems dedicated to Davis.

Members of the dance ensemble led a slow, martial procession to start Friday’s ceremony in St. Joseph’s Church at Hayti Heritage Center. E. Victor Maafo from Ghana, who was a dance mentor to Davis, opened the ceremony with the pouring of a libation, a ceremony Davis often presided over during annual Kwanzaa ceremonies. Maafo’s son Kwabena Osei Appiagyei did three pours of tea into his father’s glass. Maafo told the audience that the pours represented “father, son and holy spirit” and “living, dead and unborn.” They poured it on a plate containing dirt, which, in keeping with African tradition, they and members of the dance ensemble took outside the church and placed on the ground.

“I want you to know that a giant has fallen,” Maafo told the audience before the pour. “This is not the end of the Chuck era. This is the beginning.”

Maafo called on everyone to carry on Davis’ legacy of respect and uplift. He referred to the four Gospels in the Bible, but said there is a fifth Gospel, “the Gospel of you,” and he urged those gathered to be the Gospel through which people see Davis’ spirit.

Before the ceremony, people signed up to speak about Davis. African American Dance Ensemble member Venita Allen emceed the event and held the speakers to a three-minute limit. Davis had “one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known,” Allen said. “I’m thankful to God that all of us are here.”

Bob Grossfeld read a poem he wrote for Davis, and told the story of how he first met Davis 23 years ago in LaGuardia Airport.

Davis, who was working at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, had to take his luggage down several flights of stairs and missed his flight to RDU. That missed flight “was a moment of providence” that sealed a longtime friendship between him and Davis, one that extended to Grossfeld’s daughter Rebecca, who also spoke at the ceremony.

Grossfeld went on to serve on the ensemble’s board, and even danced African style on occasion. (Davis was known to encourage anyone who could to try and dance.) “I’m so blessed to have known Baba Chuck,” he said.

Rebecca Grossfeld met Davis when he came to her middle school, and later became his friend. “I’m in awe of the accepting community that Baba Chuck helped to create,” she said. “I’m grateful how he positively impacted all our lives.” She then sang the Jewish prayer “May Peace Descend on All of Us.”

Medina Johnson said she pondered how she would describe Davis to young people. “I’d tell them he was big, strong, tall and rooted in the African tradition,” Johnson said. She compared his legacy to the branches of a baobab tree, and said those branches will extend as long as people create dance and other forms of art. “The Baba branches can be found just about anywhere in the world,” given the number of students he taught, Johnson said.

Cleo Parker Robinson, who leads a company in Denver, Colorado, said that when she was pregnant, Davis urged her to dance, and told her it was good for the baby. “And then I went into false labor,” she said, as the audience laughed. Parker Robinson joined hands with other members of the ensemble and led the audience in a symbolic gesture that Davis often performed. The audience crouched, then lifted themselves up, while saying,

“We will continually lift each other up.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1