African dance performance makes a comeback

By Thomas Pardee

One of the largest and richest cultural programs in Columbia’s history is set to return to Chicago next week under new management.

The DuSable Museum is set to host DanceAfrica Chicago on Oct. 31 at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, 205 E. Randolph St. The college produced DanceAfrica annually for 15 years before cutting the program in 2005, but is now the lead sponsor of DuSable’s much smaller version of the event.

During its time at the college, DanceAfrica was a week-long festival encompassing dozens of separate performances all over Chicago, said Dimitri Moore, facilities coordinator for the Department of Exhibition and Performance Spaces, who served as the program manager of DanceAfrica. He said local, national and international groups of up to 20 dancers were chosen for the festival, which culminated in a mainstage event at The Chicago Theater.

David Flatley, executive director of Columbia’s Center for Community Arts Partnership, said while DanceAfrica was always popular, it took a heavy toll on college resources, and its price tag became hard to justify.

“The festival was phenomenal every year, but it was a drain on the staff [of CCAP],” Flatley said. “The management of the festival was somewhat problematic in that it was continuing to grow in scope over the years,  and fundraising was not staying current with the rising expenses. It was losing money and the college was covering the cost.”

The college hired a third-party consultant to see if the program could switch to a different department. Flatley said the consultant concluded DanceAfrica didn’t really fit anywhere at the college because Columbia doesn’t feature an organization focusing solely on “presenting performances.”

Micki Leventhal, the college’s director of media relations, said the choice to cut DanceAfrica wasn’t made lightly.

“It was a very hard decision because it was a very good program,” Leventhal said. “But we didn’t just set [DanceAfrica] adrift. We created an arrangement where we would continue to assist [whoever picked up the program] for a couple of years.”

Before cutting the program, the college considered a number of local organizations and decided to sponsor the DuSable Museum as DanceAfrica’s new home. Several other Chicago-area organizations, like the Illinois Arts Council and Time Out Chicago, are also listed sponsors of the Dusable’ DanceAfrica, which has been three years in the making.

Though she couldn’t disclose the details of the college’s sponsorship agreement with DanceAfrica, Leventhal said the financial burden of Columbia’s new role in the program has been greatly reduced.

“We have tried to make this as easy a transition as possible,” Leventhal said. “We recognize it was a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of our students who are paying tuition.”

The current incarnation of DanceAfrica Chicago will be a one-night-only performance, much smaller than Columbia’s original festival. Instead of focusing on Africa as a continental whole, the museum’s production will focus “deeply and specifically” on western Africa, particularly Ghana, said current project manager Makeda Johnson-Brooks.

She said it will highlight the connection between African culture of yesterday and African-American culture of today.

“We want to make sure [the performance] shows the bridge between those histories, how they’re intertwined,” Johnson-Brooks said. “What DanceAfrica has done is to explore African culture through dance. What we’ve done is narrow that focus a little, and to use it more as a teaching tool about a specific area of Africa.”

Moore said he’s glad DuSable has taken the reigns of DanceAfrica-which is also produced in different formats in New York, Washington, D.C. and Dallas-and is making it work for them.

“They’re retooling it, doing some different things with it, but I’m confident that starting over, it will keep up the tradition,” Moore said. “This will just continue to grow in that [DanceAfrica] family.”

DanceAfrica Chicago starts at 8 p.m. on Oct. 31 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park. Tickets for this two-hour performance range from $25 to $54 with an exclusive $125 VIP ticket which includes a pre theater reception. To purchase tickets, visit or call (312) 334-7777.