About seven weeks ago, “Baba” Chuck Davis believes he was near death.
Hugging attendees at the African American Dance Ensemble’s 31st KwanzaaFest at the Durham Armory on Sunday, Davis reflected on imani, or the seventh principle of Kwanzaa, meaning faith.
The staff at Duke Medical Cancer Center’s intensive care unit “brought him back from the edge,” Davis said.
“They didn’t think I would be alive today,” he said, as the final day of Kwanzaa coincided with his 80th birthday. “So a shout-out and a thank you to them.”
Deb Royals, artistic director of the Justice Theater Project, met Davis in 1997, when Royals was working at the Polk maximum security prison and Davis brought his dance program there.
About 7 years ago, they teamed up to choreograph together.
“It was so wonderful the day after Baba got out of intensive care. He called me on the phone and said, ‘I’ll see you at rehearsal,’ and he did,” Royals said.
Jake Phelps, a Durham resident and civil rights activist, met Davis in the 1960s when they both joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his March on Washington.
“He’s one of the great spirits in the world who has been giving of himself, and especially this, his birthday and the holiday,” Phelps said.
Davis is one of the foremost teachers and choreographers of traditional African dance in America. He founded the Chuck Davis Dance Company in New York in 1968 and the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham in the 1980s. He traveled extensively to Africa to study traditional African dance.
We are proponents of peace, love and respect for everybody.
“Baba” Chuck Davis, founder of the African American Dance Ensemble
Venita Allen was one of the founding members of the AADE.
She described Davis as an inspiration.
“He’s such a big statue of a person, with an even bigger heart,” Davis said. “If you have a mental illness or if you’re in a wheelchair or whatever – for someone to take you and allow you to use your gifts – that’s a very special person.”
Aya Shabu is a dancer and writer and said she would not be in North Carolina if it weren’t for Davis.
“He spotted me in New York City at (Brooklyn Academy of Music). I was hidden amongst a bunch of other schoolkids, and he said to me, ‘You’re a dancer, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ ” Shabu said. “He said, ‘Well, I want you to audition for my company.’ ”
She toured with the dance company for 2 years and continued to work with Davis, at N.C. Central University at times or with Kwanzaa events in the Hayti community.
As elders joined Davis in the procession for Sunday’s Kwanzaa observances, Davis said it’s not a religious holiday but a cultural one to bring the black community together to reinforce beliefs in community and humanity to move forward.
“My heart jumps out of my chest when I see the young ones because it is our responsibility to make sure the children know where they came from, their history and how to respect the elders,” Davis said.
Kichetta Holder brought Jamaya Hartfield, 7, and Keaton Hartfield, 3, to the celebration.
“It’s our first time attending a Kwanzaa event and exciting to see what it’s about to expose them to the culture,” Holder said.
Prior to the drumbeats and dancing, Davis led the elders in the Ubuntu African philosophy – “I am because you are” – and said that’s what he hoped attendees took away from Sunday’s celebrations.
“We are proponents of peace, love and respect for everybody,” Davis said.