Arts & Culture

Transcendent, humbling period for dance titan Chuck Davis

Chuck Davis and the African American Dance Ensemble

Chuck Davis has led the African American Dance Ensemble for more than 30 years. Davis and his ensemble have performed across the country and around the world. He was named one of America’s 100 “irreplaceable dance treasures” by the Dance Heritage
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Chuck Davis has led the African American Dance Ensemble for more than 30 years. Davis and his ensemble have performed across the country and around the world. He was named one of America’s 100 “irreplaceable dance treasures” by the Dance Heritage

It has been a transcendent period for Triangle dance icon Chuck Davis.

Davis, named one of America’s 100 “irreplaceable dance treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition, was in Havana last month to witness a historic, albeit different kind of choreography: the pomp and ritual of U.S. Marines raising the American flag to mark the re-opening of a U.S. embassy in Cuba after 54 years.

Here in the Triangle, the American Dance Festival at Duke University in June dedicated its 82nd season to Davis, also known as “Baba Chuck.”

His peers late last year during a ceremony at the Apollo Theater in New York City selected Davis for his second Bessie Award, often regarded as the dance-world version of the movie industry’s Academy Award.

The recent months also have been humbling for the towering dance figure. A week before Davis boarded a plane for Cuba, he completed chemotherapy treatments for a cancerous spot doctors found on his liver.

In early April, Davis passed out while rehearsing with his company for a concert. Doctors treated Davis for an infection that had spread and found the spot. Davis said the symptoms had started showing up in February.

“The signs were there, but I paid no attention,” Davis said. “I ignored it. It made me aware that we all have to pay attention to our bodies and for all of us to remember, we are not robots. I had to learn it the hard way. The doctor told my dancers if they had waited one more hour, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”

Davis, 79, has had a long and storied career. Despite his illness and at an age when most dancers would unlace their dancing shoes, Davis remains an advocate of the African dance tradition and a choreographer whose work remains in the spotlight. He’s a cultural ambassador whose influence stretches far beyond the art form that made him famous. He continues to stay relevant and at the forefront of his art and its reflection of social issues and change.

The only time I look down on somebody is when I am helping them up.

Chuck Davis

It is almost impossible to overestimate the influence of Davis in the world of dance, both internationally and in the Triangle. Davis, who has never married, has no biological children, but those who know him say he has well over 150 children who have gone on to make their mark in the world of dance. He and members of his company, the African American Dance Ensemble, introduced the African dance and drum tradition to adults from all walks of life and to thousands of schoolchildren, who grew up and still remember the company’s motto, “Peace, love and respect for everybody,” and Davis’ enduring reminder, “The only time I look down on somebody is when I am helping them up.”

“Chuck himself has lived a life, and through his audience-building, choreography, teaching, professional hires, he has brought the community together,” said E’Vonne Coleman, chief operating officer of the Durham Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. She worked with Davis while serving as the executive director of the Durham Arts Council, where Davis’ ensemble, has its offices, from 1992 until 2001.

Coleman noted that Davis’ was the first traditional African dance company in the country to hire – in the late 1980s and early 1990s – white musicians and a white female lead percussionist, which to some is taboo.

“He demonstrated that the community is one through what he is teaching and who is a part of his company,” she said. “There’s not another African dance company in the United States where a white female is playing in the troupe. He was criticized for that, but he stood up to it. That’s a small example of how he sees the world.”

Perhaps Davis’ greatest achievement was his initiation of the DanceAfrica festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1977. DanceAfrica celebrated its 38th season this year and is the nation’s largest annual celebration of African and African-American dance.

(DanceAfrica) gave us a chance to show what we could do as African-Americans, to have our own shoulders, instead of standing on someone else’s shoulders.

Bradley Simmons, adjunct professor of percussion at Duke University

“The good thing about DanceAfrica was that Chuck gave us the opportunity to shine and step out there,” said Bradley Simmons, an adjunct professor of percussion at Duke University for the past 19 years and musical director of Davis’ dance company in Durham from 1993 until 1996. “It gave us a chance to show what we could do as African-Americans, to have our own shoulders, instead of standing on someone else’s shoulders.”

With the recent reopening of U.S. travel to Cuba, Davis went there to serve as a goodwill ambassador of the arts. He was laying the groundwork for a visit to the country early next year with members of his dance company to collaborate with Cuban dancers and musicians and the Black Dance Theater in Dallas. The goal is to create a new work that will be performed in Cuba, Dallas and Durham.

“We will study the rhythms and music associated with Santeria, plus all the different dance styles; rumba, cha cha cha, mambo, merengue and bolero, Cuban cuisine and how to prepare different foods,” Davis said the day before leaving.

Simmons said Davis’ trip to Cuba was important because that’s where the African-American dance concert tradition began.

“Everything we started out doing was based on Afro-Cuban folklore,” said Simmons, who began working professionally in 1967 in New York. “It’s imperative that we jump on this ticket right now, especially the folkloric side.”

‘Mommy was a baptist’

Charles Rudolph Davis was born on New Year’s Day in 1937 and grew up in Raleigh. His mother, Annie, was a domestic, and his father, Tony, a laborer.

Davis told an essayist with the Dance Heritage Coalition that dance was not a major part of his upbringing.

“Aside from some social dancing, my daddy would do some of the buck-and-wing and the Shorty George and the duck foot. Mommy was a Baptist,” which meant she didn’t dance, he said.

After graduating from Raleigh’s J.W. Ligon High School in 1955, Davis enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a hospital corpsman at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. While off-duty on weekends, he would visit the Dunbar Hotel in Washington, D.C. With 485 rooms, a bar and dining room, the Dunbar was the city’s leading elite black hotel during segregation. It was at the Dunbar that Davis first listened to the live Afro-Cuban mambo and salsa music that were all the rage. For Davis, it was love at first dance.

“I was carrying on because I was cute,” Davis said. “I had a waist of about 30 (inches), and I just loved to dance.”

Davis still had no formal dance training, but he had a boundless enthusiasm, heart and most of all guts. He caught the eye of the hotel’s booking manager and was asked to join its night club revue.

Young Davis eventually joined a dance trio that wore what he described as “costumes cut so low what it didn’t show, it pointed at.”

After mustering out of the Navy, Davis moved to Washington, D.C., started working at George Washington University Hospital and continued to dance. His study of the Latin dance music vocabulary intensified. He also started studying the art form at Howard University and took classes in ballet, jazz and tap. He studied Caribbean dance technique with Geoffrey Holder, another dance giant who became a major influence.

One of Davis’ early teachers in D.C. was Lorna Hodges-Mafata, the daughter of Johnny Hodges, the great alto saxophonist who played with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Davis, who stands 6 feet 5 inches tall, was often the butt of jokes among Ellington and his orchestra members. “I was the tallest one there. We would be at a bar, and everyone would be drinking,” Davis said, “and I would order a Shirley Temple with two cherries. Duke Ellington used to freak out. He used to laugh so hard.”

‘Wait until I tell your mother’

His dance career took a dramatic turn in 1963 when he met Nigerian percussionist and folklorist Babatunde Olatunji the day after the March on Washington. He moved to New York to begin a challenging apprenticeship with Olatunji that included not only learning authentic African choreography but songs in the Yoruba tongue, one of Nigeria’s leading languages.

“There was no grace period,” Davis said. “You were just thrown in the middle of the pot. I would be onstage, grinning and laughing and making mistake after mistake.”

One year after joining the Olatunji dancers, the troupe performed at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, a last-minute replacement for a Nigerian dance-and-drum troupe.

“We were told not to speak English,” Davis said. “The songs we sang were in Yoruba, so we sang the songs to each other so no one could accuse us of not knowing the language.”

During one performance, Davis was spotted by his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hicks. Today, more than a half-century later, he can’t remember her first name, but there she sat in the audience.

“I came off the stage singing,” Davis said, “and when I danced past Mrs. Hicks, she said, ‘Charles Davis, you’re not from Africa! You wait until I tell your mother!’”

‘No white milk’

Dancing with Olatunji also taught Davis an enduring lesson about the absurdity of racism and the beauty of the human spirit.

The troupe had performed in Texas, and Davis, who also was their advance man, was traveling on a Trailways bus with the drums to their next performance. The bus stopped at a store in Macon, Ga., and Davis went inside for a pack of Nabs and a bottle of milk.

“I had a weakness for Nabs and milk,” said Davis, who sauntered up to the store counter and asked for the treat. The lady behind the counter told him in a slow Southern twang, “I can sell you chocolate milk, but I can’t sell you no white milk.”

Davis walked back to the bus, a sound akin to a vacuum whirring inside his head. He was sitting, staring out the window, when an older woman who had witnessed the exchange walked over.

“She looked like Granny from the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’” Davis said, “She gave me a bottle of milk and two packs of Nabs and she said, ‘Young man, everybody is not a fool.’ That helped me to form the philosophy that we needed peace and blessings for the Earth.”

Over the years, Davis has shared that philosophy with the dancers who come and go in his ensemble, with audiences at performances across the U.S. and Africa, and in the summer with students at the American Dance Festival. He became affiliated with ADF in 1971 as an artist in residence when it was located in Connecticut and, in 1980, followed its move to Duke University, again as an artist in residence.

This summer, on the last day of the ADF, student dancers ended a sunny afternoon series of performances by dancing to the pulsating rhythms of a battery of drummers playing a West African orchestration. In the middle of the celebration was Baba Chuck, dancing, a beatific smile on his face, while the students chanted, “Peace! Love! Respect! For Everybody!”

Peace from the dancers

Age and years of dancing have taken some toll on Davis’ body. The cancer spot on his liver was a worrisome reminder of mortality, but his doctor told him last week that the spot hadn’t gotten any larger and gave him a clean bill of health. He continues to move forward, with no intent of slowing down.

Saturday, there he was at the annual African American Cultural Festival in downtown Raleigh, Baba Chuck in his regal African robes, bringing a bit of magic with him.

The massive man with the booming bass voice gracefully pumps his arms up and down with the wingspan of a magnificent eagle about to take flight. His legs, slightly bowed, bend in and out at the knee like palm tree trunks swaying in tropical winds, in time with the drum rhythms. His head tilts upward, a big smile on his face. Dance for Davis is more than joy; it’s like a form of worship. Small wonder that he has been called a “cultural dance ambassador for the planet.”

“And I accept it,” he said, “because it is my firm belief that if we are going to have peace on the planet, it’s going to come from the dancers.”

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @tmcdona75589225

A Malcolm X moment

Over the years, Chuck Davis has performed with jazz musicians Sun Ra and McCoy Tyner and other greats of dance. He studied with Martha Graham and Jose Limon, among others, and his African American Dance Ensemble performed at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. His first major performance was with the Olatunji Dancers in Harlem, opening for Malcolm X. Davis remembers being nervous and that Malcolm put his arm around his shoulders and told him, “Young brother, everything is going to be all right.”

Staff writer Thomasi McDonald

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