It's rare that Oberlin students get to enjoy nice weather in November. But Dance Diaspora, Oberlin's African dance troupe, is traveling to the Bahamas to perform and bring a little of Oberlin to the tropics.
The troupe, along with director Adenike Sharpely, is going to Nassau from Nov. 15 - 17 to participate in a festival of events for the community that culminates with a pageant for large women. The group includes seven dancers, a complete jazz band and a full drum ensemble. All the money raised goes to local charities in the Bahamas.
Sharpely founded Dance Diaspora in 1991 to meet a need that she saw on campus for a performing troupe that would travel to other places to showcase its talent. While there is a static repetoire that the troupe learns, other pieces are added depending on the talents of the performers, both new and old, and what they want to work on.
The dancers going to Nassau were not chosen by audition. Dancers from last semester who were able to dance this semester were the ones who were offered the opportunity. The dancers who are going have been looking forward to the trip since the beginning of the semester, when Sharpely told them about the opportunity.
Diaspora performed at many colleges last year, including Tufts University, Bowling Green University and Athens University. They also travel locally, performing for schools and other events in Lorain, Elyria and the town of Oberlin. This is the first time that the troupe has traveled outside the country. Members thought the trip would be a good chance to get to know each other better and learn about a new environment.
"It's a good opportunity because we get to see another side and experience another culture and see what it's like," said junior Christelene Jack, another dancer. "We can bring something back to Oberlin."
"I hope we get to see the everyday life of the people," Jack said. She said the troupe was staying in a touristy part of town and that many of the Diaspora members wanted to explore the less-travelled routes. And they haven't overlooked the fact that the trip is a good performance opportunity.
"We're really performing under different circumstances," Alvarez said. "A lot of people will be familiar with the dances we're doing." Jack said that they thought one of the dances in particular, called Manjani, would be well received because it's an improvised dance. The audience is also more educated in the style of dance, because it is more indigenous to the area. Sharpely has emphasized the "Afro-Form" method of dance, which is different than European styles of dance. In Afro-form dance the knees are bent more, and the fingers are held closer together while the feet are kept parallel.
"It's freestyle," she said. "Like the community coming together, to come up with their own ideas. It's like you're choreographing your own piece."
"Audience participation is the base of African dance," said sophomore dancer Robyn Brazeal. "It's a group thing with feedback."
They've been performing the Manjani for just that reason: the audience can interact, and the dance is always changing. Dancers have the option of changing their own part, and the drummers also change their part.
The musicians and dancers need to know each other's performance styles very well in order to improvise sucessfully, and the rapport between the two is good. The musicians come to every rehearsal, even the Saturday morning ones, and as Alvarez said, "It takes two to tango."
The troupe raised money for the trip through funding by the Oberlin Student Co-op Association, Abusua, La Alianza and the Student Financial Committee. Students also held a party to raise money and found individual sponsors in the local community. Each dancer and musician has a pledge form used to raise money.
"We pretty much have the money we need [to go], but we still need a couple more hundred dollars," said sophomore Ana Maria Alvarez, one of the dancers who plans to go on the trip.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 8; November 8, 1996
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