Durham County

African American Dance Ensemble icon Chuck Davis dies at 80

Chuck Davis, who died Sunday, is being remembered not just for his contributions to dance, but for the many hugs and blessings of peace he bestowed during his decades in Durham.

“All I’m thinking right now is my hugs with him,” said Charles Reinhart, retired director of the American Dance Festival. Mr. Davis, affectionately known to many as “Baba Chuck,” could “bring people together no matter what their religion, what color, their backgrounds,” Reinhart said.

“It’s hard to put into words what I’m feeling, what Chuck meant to everybody,” said Angela Lee, executive director of Hayti Heritage Center. Mr. Davis was “always a bright light. He always filled the room with his smile and with his spirit,” Lee said. “Whenever he’d come to Hayti, he’d always greet us … with a big smile and a hug and a kiss.”

Hayti Heritage Center dedicated its dance studio to Mr. Davis. The space is known as the Chuck Davis Dance Emporium. Recently, visual artist Sharon Worth completed new signage for the studio, Lee said. She worked hard to make the sign pleasing to Mr. Davis and the work he did, and Mr. Davis got to see the work and was very pleased with it, Lee said.

Mr. Davis formed the African American Dance Ensemble in 1983, and in addition to his work as a teacher and performer, he was also known for his presence at public events. He was the grand marshal of one or Durham’s early Mardi Gras parades. He led Hayti Heritage Center’s annual celebration of Kwanzaa, stressing the importance of respect for the elders and tradition.

And everyone got hugs — even the reporters and photographers who covered him.

Charles Rudolph Davis was born in 1937 in Raleigh. Mr. Davis recently celebrated his 80th birthday. During the celebration of the last day of Kwanzaa in January of this year, he told a Herald-Sun reporter that the staff at Duke Medical Center “brought him back from the edge. They didn’t think I would be alive today,” he said. A celebration of Mr. Davis’ 80th birthday followed the Kwanzaa celebration.

Mr. Davis originally wanted to go into nursing. He worked at a hospital in the Washington, D.C., area and at night would dance at different venues, according to encyclopedia.com. He eventually attended Howard University’s dance and theater department. He started his Chuck Davis Dance Company in 1967, and in 1977, became an instructor with the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

The BAM association led to the creation of DanceAfrica, which sought out and introduced practitioners of African Dance not just to Brooklyn, but to the ADF and other places as well. Mr. Davis made yearly trips to Africa, giving dancers and choreographers the opportunity to perform in the United States.

He joined the faculty of the American Dance Festival in 1974, and established his African American Dance Ensemble in 1983. He introduced many people to African dance traditions, Reinhart said. “It was not just what he did, it was how he did it.” With his African American Dance Ensemble, “he developed this incredible community program across the state,” Reinhart said. “I think it was instrumental in bringing parts of the state together that may not have come together.” All people had to do was “listen to the tone of his voice and everybody fell in love,” Reinhart remembered.

“I know that what he did will be incredibly missed,” Reinhart continued. “I hope there will be others who will pick it up because that’s what we need in the world is connections and love and respect.”

Details about memorial services or a funeral were not available Sunday.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

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