When Ezibu Muntu African Dance and Cultural Foundation first brought its performances to the University of Richmond, it inspired Markita Brooks, a UR student at the time, with the idea of creating an African dance organization on campus.
24 years later, Ngoma African Dance Company, founded by UR alumnus Brooks, celebrated its annual showcase at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 23, in Camp Concert Hall.
The word “Ngoma” originates in Swahili and means “drum and dance,” according to the showcase flyer, which also stated that Brooks founded Ngoma in 1995. When she could not find a dance teacher, she said that she sought help from Ezibu Muntu, which helped bring Babadunjo Olagunké, a professional dancer with over 28 years of experience in African dance, to UR's campus as the artistic director for Ngoma.
African music and dance have been the root for many modern styles, and it is important to keep that in mind, Brooks said.
"It's nice to make that connection between just really African movement and music being the base of pretty much the entire contemporary, all of it," Brooks said. "Pop, hip-hop, jazz, blues, all of it. Rock. All of it. It comes from African music and African dance."
"Most people do not really understand that. Because there is not an education of the contribution of Africa to the world. ...It's important that we remember the originators. And again, that's a African concept to do that, to remember where it came from, to honor those who started. ... It allows us to be in the community and to appreciate each other."
That connection with African styles was something Olagunké, through Ngoma and guest performances, wanted to educate people while entertaining them. Last year, he invited Block Crew to perform during the showcase to show how their dances relate to Africa, he said.
"I always try to give audiences or spectator to think about, 'Oh, I see how it relates to Africa,'" Olagunké said. "Africa is not just seeing people sick and starving. It is much more than that. So if you come to think about it in different way, I'm doing what I am supposed to do."
The theme of the Ngoma 24th annual showcase was “By God’s Grace," which referred to the blessing to be able to dance on stage, proud for being part of one of the first diverse dance groups on campus, now "twenty-four years strong," Olagunké said.
"To be able to do what you guys do, to do what you guys are doing, is by the grace of gods," Olagunké said. "Make sure that you utilize being every moment that every moment happened, and let people enjoy you."
During a scene called Formal Drum Call, three UR students joined the drum team and played on stage with the other drummers, professionals from Ezibu Muntu.
The three were students in UR's African drumming class, senior Kristi Mukk, Ngoma's communications director, said in an email.
Mukk, now in her third year with Ngoma, chose to join the dance company to learn about other cultures, and also ended up loving the support within it.
"Coming from Hawaii, I've always been eager to learn more about other cultures, and I wanted to try something new and push myself out of my comfort zone," Mukk said. "When I tried out for Ngoma, I loved how supportive all the girls were and how we all came from different backgrounds, but all were welcomed, and we could all bond through African dance."
Mukk appreciated that Ngoma had such a long history as one of the oldest student dance groups on campus, she said.
Organizing a dance and drum team like Ngoma is not easy, but rewarding, Olagunké said. He said he did it out of love and respect for Brooks and her vision, to bring people from different backgrounds together.
"I've been up since 4 a.m., preparing to get stuff ready for the show," Olagunké said, joking that he couldn't wait to go home. "I don't take for granted who I am. I know who I am, and I know what my purpose is. So, I can't play around. I just have to get it done."
Another challenge is "ballet feet," Brooks said. Ballet and African dance are two opposite types of dance. Ballet dancers have to have pointy toes, "dance up" and perform uniformly with other dancers. But African dancers need to have flat feet and "dance down." Dancers are also welcomed to show some individuality within the group, Brooks explained.
"You dance together, but individual style is actually welcomed to celebrate the African culture, which is the exact opposite of ballet," Brooks said. "What I was saying, specifically to any dancers who might read this, is that if you want to be a well-rounded dancer and you can do ballet and African dance, you can do anything because they are so opposite."
Brooks believes that the drums and dances are interconnected and inseparable in African culture.
"The dance is the response to the drum," Brooks said, "in which case, you see they have the interaction, the drummers and dancers, because it's like the synergy, this one flow happening between the two of them because the dance is the response to the drum.
"That's very much African culture. you see that in the concert, when the music comes and dancers, you know, and that's where their catalyst comes from. It's just connecting back to culture, connecting back to the earth because the drum is the heartbeat. That's why it's the central sound in Africa."
After a two-hour immersion of African dance and drum, Ngoma closed for the night, embracing a concert of warm applause from the excited audience.
Contact features writer Bingjie Liu at email@example.com.