Celebrating 20 Years of the African Music & Dance Ensemble
On April 6, the annual Black Alumni Weekend picnic outside Old Cabell Hall joined a moveable feast of sorts that culminated in a special performance event marking the 20th Anniversary of the African Music & Dance Ensemble at UVA. The event, titled “Grounds for a Gathering,” brought back ensemble alumni from around the country and across ethnic backgrounds to celebrate the milestone with a reception in Old Cabell Hall, followed by a performance on stage that allowed current students to meet and perform both for and with their predecessors, with audience invited to join in the festivities.
The African Music & Dance Ensemble is a hands-on course offered by the McIntire Department of Music, repeatable for credit, that focuses on music and dance forms from the Ewe of Ghana West Africa and the BaAka of the Central African rain forest, and includes several performance opportunities throughout the year on UVA Grounds and throughout the Charlottesville community. There is also a linked academic seminar offered once a year called Performance in Africa, which offers students a chance to read in-depth about the music-cultures they are learning to perform and fosters discussion about issues of race, culture colonialism, and new contexts for addressing these issues through performance. When the program’s founder and director Michelle Kisliuk arrived, UVA offered only a mini-course in African music and dance that was offered once a year for a two-week period. “I brought West African drumming and dance, which is something, taught a fair bit in major universities,” she said, “But I also brought my own research in the Central African Republic with the BaAka forest people. There is really nobody else who teaches that beyond the BaAka people who learn it by growing up in the culture, as opposed to through formal teaching, so we are really the only place where this music and dance and cultural sensibility is taught in any formal setting.”
Kisliuk said this anniversary was about celebrating not just the art itself, but the community she and her students have built over the past two decades. “Over the years, we have created our own mini culture,” Kisliuk said. “And there is continuity between generations of students in the ensemble, even if they don’t know each other – a sort of collective culture that has been established through the music and dance and also through the style of interaction we have developed through the years. Our alumni have gone on to a fascinating array of careers. We have physicians, neurosurgeons, nurses, musicians, researchers in Africa and more. Meeting these people allows our students to project themselves into their own futures a little bit.” The timing of this celebration, in the midst of today’s political climate, Kisliuk said, added another important dimension. “Given today’s political realities and challenges and all that they throw into question makes it even more important to take stock of community and what we all have to fall back on and to follow for inspiration and guidance on how to move forward.”