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It takes a village to really dance



The world would probably be a better place if more people danced like the members of Harambee, a Denver-based ensemble that performs traditional African dances at The Smokebrush Center for Arts and Theater this weekend.

In these days of cell phones and beepers, fewer and fewer people engage in the kind of communal expression that defines Harambee's repertoire -- dances that harken to communities in Africa where communal dancing is a part of life.

Sure, we've got our traditional dances, which span many American cultures, but most Americans these days do their version of communal dancing at nightclubs, or weddings. And even then, we're usually doing our own thing, wiggling away to our own internal drum machine.

But when's the last time members of your extended family broke into a spontaneous boogie because the men in the family were being obnoxious? When the last time all the cousins busted out in song and dance because Uncle Charley just pulled in the driveway.

Well, that's sort of what still happens in African villages all the time, suggests Harambee's artistic director Letitia Williams, a professor of African American and Recreational Dance Forms at CU Boulder.

"Most of the dance movements and concepts [in African villages] originate from the way people lived and the events that occurred in their lives," she said.

At this weekend's concert, for example, Harambee will perform the Jamboa, a greeting and welcome dance from Ghana, as well as the 'Anger' dance, in which village women perform to let out frustrations.

It's the communal element of these dances that links them with forms of traditional dance from other cultures, she said. "The style and artistic execution of the dances might be different, but the concepts are often the same, no matter what the culture," she said.

From birth to death, these dances mark key community events: "Funeral dances, dances of celebration for marriage, birth, naming ceremonies, rights of passage for young people -- these are all reasons that might bring a community together in dance," she added.

It makes sense that people dance so closely together, she said, because villagers' lives are often very interdependent. "For example, people in African villages sometimes live in compounds and people are supported strongly by their community," she said.

"In Africa, six or seven families might work together to cook, clean, to shop, to draw water from the well. So the whole effort of providing services is done in a communal area. So the concept of community is strong."

Named after a Swahili word that means "lets all pull together," Harambee's mission is to display cultural differences and similarities in order to foster understanding through the medium of traditional African Dance.

While many modern dance troupes continue to incorporate traditional African moves into contemporary choreography, Harambee keeps it traditional, says Williams.

Likewise, the music is also authentic, with Harambee members palming and slapping an array of traditional instruments, from the high-pitched djembe (pronounced jem-bay) to the deeper, more resonant djoun-djoun (june-june), to shakers called chequere (sheck-ah-ray).

If you go, bring the kids and expect to do some shaking. These folks like to get the audience in on the community celebration. And don't worry, they'll show you what to do.

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