On a steamy Saturday in Durham, the dance studio at Hayti Heritage Center resembles the famous audition sequence from Flashdance–but with an African flair. In place of a lone performer, there are dozens of girls clumped together at the bar. Instead of a panel of judges in suits, women in flowing skirts lead warm-ups while a line of drummers stands at the ready.
The tryouts are for Collage, a youth dance company now based at Hayti. The 21 hopefuls who’ve signed up are the most the company has ever drawn to an audition. This year, Collage saw nine of its senior members “graduate” to college and careers, leaving a gap its directors are eager to fill. By the end of the day, a half dozen dancers and drummers will be chosen as either full members or apprentices for the 25-member company.
Since it began as a program of the Durham Arts Council’s Dance School in 1985, Collage’s artistic reputation has burgeoned. With a repertoire that spans African, Caribbean, jazz, modern and hip-hop styles, the company has performed at venues such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Exploris Museum and, earlier this summer, a packed gala at the N.C. School of Science and Math in honor of its own 20th anniversary.
Beyond performance, the company is also known for the unique learning environment it provides its members. Former dancers describe it as a cross between a finishing school and a nurturing, extended family–a place where “you see girls transforming before your eyes into vibrant, confident, assertive young people,” says Afiyah Carter who started dancing with Collage, when she was 8 and now has a 12-year-old daughter in the group.
That family feeling is alive at the Hayti studio, as current company members offer last minute tips and encouragement to girls signed up to audition. The noise level dips and swirls and the scene feels like a videotape on fast-forward.
Suddenly, a straight-backed figure in a bright red headscarf strides to the center and shouts the first words of a West African greeting.
“Ago!” calls out Sadiyah Shakur, Collage’s founder and artistic director.
“Ame!” comes the response from those who know it.
Fifty-eight-year-old Shakur, known to all as “Mama Sadiyah,” is the force behind Collage–the reason, members say, it has succeeded both as an artistic enterprise and a haven for young people. A native New Yorker, she was one of the original members of the Chuck Davis Dance Company before Davis founded the African American Dance Ensemble. Shakur is also a teacher. She’s worked as a director of Durham’s Omuteko Gwamaziima Charter School and now as an instructor in the gifted program at Glenn Elementary.
It’s a rare combination in the dance world, says Davis of his longtime colleague. “Mama Sadiyah knows how to reach young people, and not everyone has that. Me? I tend to throw things. She achieves the same result without batting an eye.”
Shakur (whom Davis confides is an amazing singer as well as a dancer) also understands that African customs survive by being passed on. “So children are learning more than a routine,” Davis says. “They are learning what it takes to maintain a tradition.”
At the tryouts, Shakur explains how dancers will be judged. “We’re looking for a number of things,” she tells them. “Not only that you’re a wonderful dancer, but also how you present yourself, whether you give up or show tenacity.”
The form of the dancing may come as a surprise to some, she adds. “African dance goes across the entire continent. As many different people and languages as there are, that’s how many dance styles.”
As they begin group exercises, the girls fix on Shakur’s somber face and the birdlike motions of her hands for clues for how to please her. They are rewarded with an occasional flashing smile and gentle instructions for improvements: “No turnout,” she says. “Make your feet go straight back.”
Anyone who has seen Collage perform knows the bar is set high. Shakur and assistant director Toni Hall–a founding member of the African American Dance Ensemble–have also brought in such leading lights as Davis, Titos Sompa and Babatunde Olatunji to conduct classes.
To Shakur, such sharing only makes sense. “The idea of continuing an art form within a family is very African,” she says. As for audiences, “We want the joy of the dance to come across, for this to be uplifting.”
Even at the audition, that spirit is evident. As the drums begin their part of the “conversation,” dancers snake across the room, imitating Hall’s and Shakur’s movements. Suddenly, every inch of the studio is alive.
It’s the vitality of the African dance tradition that first drew Monica Williams to Collage when she was 13 and kept her there all through high school.
“I got involved because I came to a performance,” says Williams, who will study dance at East Carolina University in the fall. “With your standard dancing, you have music on the stereo and the teacher saying ‘Follow me.’ But with African dance, you have people moving and live drummers. There’s no way that doesn’t wake you up!”