Kwanzaa festival in Durham celebrates new year with music, dance

mquillin@newsobserver.comJanuary 1, 2014 

— Joyce Arnold is an active volunteer who bowls, walks, practices yoga and plans to take a Spanish class this spring. But she didn’t mind being called an elder at Wednesday’s Kwanzaa celebration, where those over 65 were honored for their wisdom.

Arnold and others walked into the gym at the downtown Durham Armory in a procession of drums and costumed dancers. As they did, Chuck Davis, founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble, asked the audience to remain seated, a symbolic gesture to keep their heads lower than those of the elders, whose heads held so much more knowledge.

When the drums quieted, he bowed and asked, “Elders, do we have your permission to continue?”

With their resounding approval, Davis kicked off the dance ensemble’s 29th annual Kwanzaa festival, the conclusion of the week-long celebration of African heritage.

Over the next couple of hours, several hundred people came and went from the free event, which had elements of a reunion, a recital and a New Year’s Day party.

“It’s ‘Old Home Week,’” Davis said, leaning over to hug yet another old friend. Davis is himself an elder, celebrating his 77th birthday at the event, but part of what he likes about the festival each year is the way it brings together generations.

“It’s a gathering of the people of the community.” he said. “And as elders in the community, this also affords us an opportunity to let the young ones know that we’ve got their backs.”

In the week-long festival, each day is dedicated to a different principal, identified by Kwanzaa’s founder, Maulana Karenga, in 1966. The principles are named by the Swahili words for unity; self-determination; collective work and responsibility; cooperative economics; purpose; creativity; and faith.

It took all those traits to bring the Durham festival together. In addition to the performers, it also featured a fashion show with models wearing African-style clothing, and vendors offering food, jewelry, music, art and books.

Omisade Burney-Scott has lost count of the number of African American Dance Ensemble Kwanzaa feasts she has attended, but she looks forward to coming each year.

The year just ended was a difficult one, she said, with so many young people’s deaths to mourn. She ticked off the names: Trayvon Martin in Florida. Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte. Jesus Huerta in Durham.

“We rally around trauma, which is important,” Burney-Scott said. “But it’s also great to be able to rally around joy.”

Women in green caftans, little girls in black patent-leather dance shoes, and a dance troupe that had the audience clapping out the steps gave the first day of the new year a sense of rushing motion.

“It’s a time of new beginnings,” Burney-Scott said over the pulsing music. “A new time. New space. You get to cut new cloth.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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