A Brief History of African Dance (from Thebes to Agape)

A Brief History of African Dance

A Brief History Congo Sq & Thebes

A Brief History of African Dance (from Thebes to Agape)
2.75 x 3.75 x 3.75 inches
Coldworked glass mug, kilnfired paint

Agape Institute for Movement Studies was a school of African dance and drumming, as well as Kung Fu and Tai Chi, started by Maurice Haltom in Ithaca in the 1980s. I began taking Maurice’s drum classes in the late 80s and eventually did some of his dance, Kung Fu, and Tai Chi classes too. The section of the piece showing Maurice playing the djembe and the three women dancing together is based on a photo I shot at a performance by Agape at the Ithaca Farmers Market in the early 90s.

It struck me somewhere along the way that “white”* people being allowed to join in African dance is something of an historical event. That there are African and Afro-American dancing and drumming teachers who have been understanding enough to let Caucasions into their classes after the long, sad history of slavery and other oppression that has happened to “black” people is noteworthy in of itself. From a similar historical perspective, it is a somewhat ironic that “white” people are interested in doing African dance and drumming, as for centuries Caucasians in this country tried to annihilate the African culture of “their” slaves.

African dance and drumming teachers teaching “white” people is something that some members of the African-American community are not happy about. While I think I understand, for the most part, why they feel this way, I am very grateful for Maurice—and other teachers—letting us into the tradition and the spirit of Agape, a word that means something akin to unconditional or spiritual love. (“Agape” started as a Greek term and was then picked up by Christians. Maurice is also a minister.)

The two Egyptian girls come from a painting on a tomb at West Thebes in Ancient Egypt, c. 1390 BC. The two African men dancing together are based on a photo taken by Hector Acebes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1953 (at the time it was called the “Belgian Congo”, in case we needed reminding of how recent some of the previously mentioned oppression was.) The man dancing with a cane is from an anonymous folk painting done in the 1700s depicting a plantation scene in the US south. The two women dancing holding bowls is based on a photo of a Congo Square reenactment in New Orleans, the place where jazz was born in the late 1800s/early 1900s. I found the photo on the New Orleans tourism website neworleansonline.com.