I swear, when Chuck Davis swooped onto a stage, colorful robes billowing, feet a blur, he looked like the most graceful big man in the world.
And the most confident.
It wasn’t always so, though, and Davis would be the first to tell you so. Davis, the African American Dance Ensemble founder who helped make Durham a mecca for aspiring artists, died Sunday. He was 80.
During his decades as an eminent dance artist and teacher, he introduced millions of all nationalities around the world to African dance and taught hundreds how to feel the rhythm, how to tell stories with the movements of their bodies.
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For all of his expertise and recognition as an eminence grise, though, he loved telling the story of the first time he performed with the dance company of the legendary Babatunda Olatunji in 1963.
“Tunji had some of the most dynamic dancers in the country,” he said in a 2015 interview on WUNC-TV. “In the work we were presenting, everyone came from stage right – except me. I would make my entrance from stage left. I was standing there, trying to remember the choreography. I broke out in hives because I was so nervous. I was bent over, rocking. ... All of a sudden I felt the pressure of an arm around (my shoulder) and the voice says ‘That’s all right, young fella. Everything’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be all right. You’ll be OK.’ Immediately, all of that tension left me. ... I prepared to make my entrance, and I looked back and said ‘Thank you,’ and it was Malcolm X.
“I know I made 1,001 mistakes,” he said of his performance that night, “but everyone thought the others were wrong because I was just a ’grinnin’.”
The Raleigh native founded the Chuck Davis Dancers in New York in 1968 and the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham in 1983.
Jodee Nimerichter, executive director of the American Dance Festival, said her predecessor, Charles Reinhart, invited Davis’ ensemble to perform in residence at the ADF in 1972, when it was in Connecticut, “because of his growing reputation as one of the foremost accomplished teachers of African dance.
“Charles later recruited him to move to North Carolina as artist-in-residence for ADF to head its recruitment” here, Nimerichter said.
That’s right: You know all of those lithe, maddeningly fit young people you see gliding through Durham and hanging out over at the Whole Foods on Broad Street during the summers while attending ADF?
They’re here, in large part, because of Chuck Davis’ influence.
“We had a loooong, wonderful relationship with Chuck,” Nimerichter said. “He has been on the ADF faculty. He traveled to Indonesia as part of ADF’s international linkages program. In 2006, we honored him with our teaching award, and we dedicated the 2015 season to him. This is our 40th year in North Carolina, and the company is performing on opening night (June 15) in honor of our 40th year here.
“He’s family,” she said.
Over the years, Davis received, in addition to numerous other honors, the AARP Certificate of Excellence, the North Carolina Dance Alliance Award, the 1990 North Carolina Artist Award and the North Carolina Order of the Long Leaf Pine. He had served on the board of the North Carolina Arts Council since 1991 and in 1992 received the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts, the state’s highest honor.
Whenever I met and spoke with Chuck, I always left marveling that such a big dude emitted an aura of such gentleness.
That may be because I never tried to dance for him. Ivy Burch and Venita Allen did, and while they, too, remember his kindness and gentleness, they both said he could be painfully direct when instructing you what to do and where to do it.
Was Chuck patient, harsh or demanding as a teacher? I asked the two women, who both started dancing with him as teenagers in Durham.
“All of the above,” they said in unison, laughing at the memory.
“He was demanding, he was patient, he could be short-tempered in giving you direction of where to go onstage,” Allen said.
Burch said she was 16 and working a summer job through the city of Durham at ADF when Davis’ dance company began an outreach program in the city. “They came to the ADF, and I told them about the Weaver Street Recreation Center Dancers,” Burch said. “That’s where they met Venita. She was 13. They told Chuck about us and he came and that’s where we met him.
“We were already dancing,” she said, “but when we got into the professional realm, it was through Baba Davis.”
They toured with him around the country, but not internationally. “I wasn’t afraid to fly,” Burch explained, “but I was afraid to fly long distances. So I never went to Japan and other countries with him.”
“And if she wasn’t flying, I wasn’t flying,” Allen said.
They flew nonetheless – if not in the air, across stages around the country, and the dances choreographed by Davis were pure poetry.
If you were never fortunate enough to see the ensemble perform live, you can see them soar forever thanks to the wonders of the internet.