Lively bodies on the loose

Chico State’s annual Keeping Dance Alive! showcases local African dance

HIGH-ENERGY GROOVE <br>Dancers from Chico State and the community assemble the choreographed moves for this year’s showcase.

Dancers from Chico State and the community assemble the choreographed moves for this year’s showcase.

Photo by Tom Angel

Get up and dance! The Department of Motor Vehicles says you have to!” That’s what I say to the students in my Traffic Violator School classes, right after lunch, when I crank up the volume on a CD of the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

DMV doesn’t mandate this, of course. It’s just a way to have fun, and most of the time the road criminals (actually just run-of-the-mill speeders, California rolling-stoppers, etc.) will stand up. But most of them will stand very still, while a few coolly demonstrate that they are only stretching their arms. Like, “Don’t think I’m dancing, dude.” A very few will actually move their hips or do something dance-like. Extremely rare is a class where everyone jumps up and follows me around, dancing and laughing, gettin’ down to Fela’s high-energy groove. This has happened only three times, and only in Chico.

Perhaps because of two facts: Though a small city, Chico is home to a vital African drumming and dancing scene and the annual showcase of dance arts, Keeping Dance Alive!

Jeanne Christopherson is a teacher of African dance and a choreographer in this year’s showcase. In an interview she sums up the general paralysis of the citizenry, saying that we live “in a culture where people don’t move, a culture that has devalued movement, where people are spectators a lot of the time.”

Involved in dance for over 20 years, Christopherson left her home state of Montana for New York City and then California. She speaks of the “hunger” people have for that which is vital and lively and the nationwide interest in African music and dance. In Montana, for instance, “There are performing groups. People who were students of mine are now teaching their own classes, they have their own companies. There are workshops three or four times a year. Nobody’s getting rich at it, but there is an international community.”

Describing herself as an “interpreter” and not an “originator,” Christopherson expresses joy and gratitude that she can live in Chico and not even need to go to the Bay Area to take part in classes taught by world-class teachers. They regularly come to her doorstep. And she can regularly work with accomplished Chico based African artists, such as Lansana Kouyate and Djibril Camara, both from Guinea, and Sidiko Diallo and Alaine Zinzou, who both hail from Senegal.

“Caribbean Carnival” is the title of Christopherson’s contribution to this year’s Keeping Dance Alive! Based on Cuban carnival rhythms, its 10-minute format could easily have been a two-hour dance. Djibi Camara will present “KuKu/Dunumba"—Kuku being a social, rhythmic “up!” and Dunumba being “a strong man’s dance” with warrior energy. Camara’s background includes, as the press release puts it, “principal dancer and choreographer with Ballet d’Afrique Noire, Ballet Bougarabou and Troupe Federale Konakree.”

Keeping Dance Alive! has been an artistic staple in Chico for over a decade. Its great popularity as an annual event might be attributed (in part) to the wide range of dance presented, from the African/Caribbean to ballroom dancers Emma Jessee and Beau Scarbrough, and encompassing Chico Community Ballet—Adam Archer’s “Winter” set to Vivaldi and Amy Seiwert’s “Call and Response” set to Bobby McFerrin. Frank Sinatra’s “The Best Is Yet to Come” underlies KDA Coordinator Sheree Henning’s piece that combines “Fosse-type movement with jazz.”

“Arachnophobia,” by Sonya Tate, features a spider web on which the dancers climb to do acrobatic moves. We assume that these are not incredible shrinking dancers but life-size performers on an oversize web.

There are 15 pieces in all, by 15 choreographers—plenty to satisfy our hunger for rhythm and harmony and our need to see again what many of us lose after childhood: a lively supple body that moves and grooves.