On Thursday, December 2, the Berkeley High School (BHS) African Diaspora Dance Department hosted the opening night of its 53rd annual winter performance, which is titled Dancing Through Life’s Changes. The thoughtfully curated collection of dances, step routines, and drum calls paid homage to numerous countries, including Senegal, Barbados, Guinea, Mali, and Haiti, among others.
African diaspora dance refers to traditional African dance that has evolved due to major events in African history, such as slavery and colonization. Marleigh Leaks, a senior in Academic Choice (AC), has been enrolled in Afro-Haitian Dance since her sophomore year. She said, “[African diaspora dances] are dances from all over the world, and all of us coming together to dance.” The performance included both traditional African dances and rituals, as well as more modern forms of dance, like hip hop, that have come from the Black community.
To open the show, Executive Director Dr. Dawn Williams poured water in libation to honor the students’ ancestors. The audience members were asked to say ashe — a word used by the Yoruba people of West Africa — after the names of the students’ ancestors were read. The process of libation is commonly found in ritual dances from West African culture.
This year, Leaks performed in three dances. The first, titled “Ibo,” was about African people on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic. The dancers started in the shape of a boat, and then one dancer started to break off their shackles. Leaks said, “[Ibo] was more than just a fun little dance, it was telling a story.”
“Triba,” the other dance Leaks performed in, was choreographed to replicate the movement of a bird. Finally, there was “Carnival,” which was choreographed by Emike Obidah-Allenye, one of Leaks’s fellow students. “[Being choreographed by another student] was all fun. She was really good teaching it, and it was really fun, especially with all of us together,” said Leaks.
Dr. Zakarya Diouf, known as Papa Zak, was a beloved BHS teacher and founder of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company who recently passed away. His wife, Naomi Diouf, known as Mama Naomi, was also a teacher at BHS. To honor his memory, the BHS African Diaspora Dance Department dedicated the winter performance to him and his achievements.
“Among their many accomplishments, Papa Zak and Mama Naomi also received the prestigious National Heritage Award. This is from the National Endowment for the Arts. It is the highest honor for awards of art in the nation,” said Williams.
This dance performance is the first one in-person since the end of distance learning at BHS. Students in the dance department reflected upon this return by performing a step routine called “Dancing and Learning through the Pandemic.” This piece, choreographed by Williams, expressed the challenges of quarantine and reviewed ways to practice self care.
Tanzia Mucker, known to her BHS dance students as Ms. Shorty, emphasized the significance of this first performance back from online learning, which was an isolating experience for many people.
“This is what we missed in dance. Being together, dancing as a movement, as one,” Mucker said.