Chuck Davis cannot hold still. As his company, the African American Dance Ensemble, performs a Kwanzaa program for a crowd of preschoolers at the Hayti Heritage Center, the choreographer, teacher and performer known as Baba Chuck bounces, sways and claps. When it's his turn back in the spotlight, he walks to the foot of the stage and holds the children transfixed as he strikes up a call and response, teaching them Swahili words that express the principles of the holiday.
It's hard not to notice Davis, even when he's standing in the background. He's 6 feet 5 inches tall, wearing a bright red African boubou, complete with matching trousers and hat, and his beaming smile and grandfatherly presence are unmistakable. He is flamboyantly happy, and it rubs off on the people around him. The show ends with Davis and the dancers chanting their motto "Peace, love and respect for everybody." On their way out, two little boys come over to give Davis a hug.
This week, Davis will celebrate his 70th birthday and his 50th year as a professional dancer with a tribute performance by the AADE at the American Tobacco Historic District. Stafford Berry, associate artistic director of the company, says the group will perform a bantaba, a Mandinka word meaning "dancing ground." "Spontaneity is a big part of the bantaba," Berry says. "It's not going to be anything overly structured or choreographed. We're going to get out there and strut our stuff in his honor. And of course we'll pull him up to probably cut a step as well. All the elders, if they can walk, they can dance, and he can walk, so at 70 he's going to be kicking it right along with us."
The company blends traditional African and African-American dances into its own signature style. At the Hayti performance, traditional dances from Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and the Gambia feel more like a rhythmic jam than a concert. "The African dance that we do comes from people's lives, as opposed to being created strictly for artistic expression alone," Berry explains. The dancers sing, stomp, shout and ululate along with the percussive movement of bare feet and waving arms. Davis has traveled to western Africa each year for the past 30 years to learn about the culture and history of these dances. By the sound of their voices and the look in their eyes, the 4-year-olds in the audience seem to understand that what they're watching is an energetic celebration, a communal cultivation of joy.
Life has taken Davis on a long, wild ride. It began in a shotgun duplex apartment on Jamaica Street in what is now downtown Raleigh—back then it was the Fourth Ward. "I didn't start out to be a dancer," he says. He wanted to be a nurse, he says, because "I felt that I could teach compassion." After attending the then all-black Ligon High School, he studied nursing at Georgetown and served in the Navy. He discovered social dancing in the nightclubs of Washington, D.C. "Oh salsa! Oh, mambo, cha-cha-cha, meringue, samba, you name it, I was into it. As long as there was a drum, timbales and a bell, I was into it. And I was good. Oh yes, with these long legs, I went everywhere."
He studied dance at Howard University and joined a professional dancing troupe in New York in 1959, dancing modern, jazz, African and Afro-Cuban styles over the years. In 1964, Davis saw the Sierra Leone National Dance Company perform at the New York World's Fair, and the experience ignited a lifelong passion for African history and culture. He founded the Chuck Davis Dance Company in New York, and they performed in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. He's visited the continent every year since.
In 2000, the Dance Heritage Coalition, a national coalition of dance groups based in Washington, named Davis one of America's 100 "irreplaceable dance treasures," along with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Isadora Duncan, Alvin Ailey and Fred Astaire.
The American Dance Festival drew Davis back to Durham in 1980 by inviting his company to a residency in its community services program. They worked with dancers from NCCU, and with residents of Cornwallis Road and MacDougal Terrace public housing communities. "We discovered some fantastic artists," Davis says. Those dancers came to form Davis' second professional company, the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble. He was then invited to found the African Dance program at Duke University, which is now run by his goddaughter, Ava Vinessett.
Davis says he loves living in North Carolina because here, the arts are "a part of the fabric of the people, and it's not only for the elite—for all of the people, for everyone to enjoy. Not just one art form, but all of the art forms."
The AADE is also gearing up for its annual Kwanzaa performance at the Durham Armory on Jan. 1 (Davis' actual birthday) and its upcoming season. They're collaborating with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American bluegrass ensemble based in the Triangle, on an original work titled Blue Grass Brown Earth. (For more about the Carolina Chocolate Drops, read "To catch the music" by Rick Cornell in the Nov. 2, 2005 issue of the Indy, www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A25495.) It's not going to be easy, however. The company needs to raise $250,000. "We're on a constant fundraising campaign," Davis says. He hopes the tribute performance this week will help bring them closer to the goal.
"I'm happy," Davis says. "Life is full when you are a dancer blessed by God! Uh huh."