Chuck Davis

Chuck Davis (1937–2017)

Chuck Davis, the dancer and choreographer who was a luminary of African dance in the US, died last Sunday according to a report by Margalit Fox in the New York Times. His work involved recreating traditional dances from throughout the African world as well as contemporary choreography fusing African traditions with modern dance. He was the founder and longtime artistic director of DanceAfrica, a festival held each Memorial Day weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Created in 1977, the festival is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this month and is a multiday celebration that presents dancers and musicians from the United States, Africa, and the diaspora, along with an outdoor bazaar selling African food and handicrafts. It has since been staged in other cities throughout the United States. Davis also founded the African American Dance Ensemble Durham in the early 1980s, and served as its director until 2015. In North Carolina, his company performed in schools, prisons, and nursing homes, as well as on concert stages.

Born as Charles Rudolph Davis in 1937 in North Carolina, he entered a Navy R.O.T.C. program in high school, training as a medical corpsman. After completing his naval service in the late 1950s, he worked in a Washington, DC-area hospital and intended to enroll in nursing school but he also he enrolled in dance classes at a local studio; he later studied a broad array of dance traditions at Howard University. He joined a small troupe, La Dalemo Trio, which performed in nightclubs around DC. In 1963, the day after he attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the Nigerian-born drummer Babatunde Olatunji saw Davis dance and invited him to join his music and dance troupe in New York. There he studied with choreographers Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey, and José Limón.

It was seeing a troupe from Sierra Leone perform at the 1964 New York World’s Fair in Queens, however, that motivated him to research African dance traditions. After a brief time in the Colombian-American modern dancer Eleo Pomare’s company in the late 1960s, Davis formed the Chuck Davis Dance Company in New York. He won two Bessie Awards throughout his life, and in 1999, the Dance Heritage Coalition chose Davis as one of the country’s hundred “irreplaceable dance treasures.” In 2016, the Brooklyn Academy of Music created an annual award in his honor: the Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship. Davis retired as DanceAfrica’s artistic director after the 2015 festival and was succeeded by Abdel R. Salaam.

Davis often said, “As long as you’re dancing together, you have no time for hatred.”