A room full of people of different ethnicities and backgrounds danced in a circle, shaking their hands in the air and moving their hips. They were following the ministrations of Kevin LaMarr Jones, a ’94 graduate of the University of Richmond and founder of CLAVES UNIDOS, a collective of artists who explore and connect the African Diaspora through song and dance. 

During the “Afro-Diasporicities Roundtable,” on Jan. 29 at 5:30 p.m., Jones had the crowd mirror his movements and even opened up the circle to allow various members of the UR community to dance freely. 

The event was a part of “Dancing Histories: This Ground,” this year’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival. The festival is presented by UR’s theatre and dance department and features panels, performances and artist residencies.

Wednesday’s roundtable was hosted by theatre and dance professors Alicia Díaz and Patricia Herrera. The roundtable covered how to tell stories of people of the African Diaspora through oral history and performance internationally, nationally, in the Richmond area and on UR’s campus.

“It is in our doing, it is being in our bodies, that we can be with each other,” Díaz said. “To be present is to be part of the experience.”

Alex LaSalle, the founder of Alma Moyo, an Afro-Puerto Rican Bomba music group, was the first speaker at the roundtable to share his story. 

LaSalle’s family encouraged him to learn more about his ancestry and culture as a teenager, and he spent the rest of his life studying the connections between his Afro-Puerto Rican heritage and his Afro-Latinx community in the U.S. through music, he added.

When bringing up the different musical styles he discovered from his culture, LaSalle demonstrated them by singing. He was accompanied by two drum players and a dancer. 

When LaSalle discussed a conference he attended in Puerto Rico, another speaker, Free Bangura, gasped in surprise and explained that she was there too.That event happened years before the two met officially but they had unknowingly already crossed paths.

Bangura is a historical strategist and founder of Untold RVA. She is currently working on a project called “Brother General Gabriel,” which is focused on Gabriel’s Rebellion in Richmond in 1800, she said. 

MK Abadoo, a professor of dance and choreography at VCU and co-director of the "Brother General Gabriel" project, was another speaker of the night. She started her speech by asking everyone to “stand at your highest height” and raise from their seats. 

She then explained that eight people in the first row had surprises under their chairs — black lamps. 

A piece from "Brother General Gabriel" exploring the plight of Gabriel’s insurrection was performed by two dancers during the event. As the lights dimmed, the eight audience members were instructed to turn on their lamps, casting the room in an ethereal glow as the dancers moved through the space.

The last speaker of the night was Lauranett Lee, the head historian of the UR Institutional History and Identity Initiative. 

Lee created a database called “Unknown No Longer,” a listing of Virginia slave names, to help descendants find their ancestors. While combing through the traumatic history of slavery in Virginia, Lee listens to music to get through the pain of it, she said.

Lee’s findings helped in the discovery of the Westham burying grounds, a potential burial for enslaved persons, on the UR campus.

“We’re using this to help educate people about not only the university but about Southern history, Virginia history, American history, in a global context,” Lee said.

Johnette Johnson, a senior American Studies major, said that she found the event to be groundbreaking. 

“Patricia and Alicia continue to formalize and weave activism into the DNA of this university, and it is so necessary,” Johnson said.

Contact news contributor Jada Frazier at jada.frazier@richmond.edu.