Acclaimed dancer and choreographer Chuck Davis died earlier this month at the age of 80. Davis was considered America’s master of African dance. He formed the Chuck Davis Dance Company in New York in the 1960s and later built the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham.
He was an integral part of the Triangle community and could often be seen wearing elaborate West African attire and a broad smile as he strolled through Durham. Host Frank Stasio talked with Chuck Davis about his life and career in 2010. This is a rebroadcast of that conversation.
On growing up in Raleigh during segregation:
We had to deal with the taunts from the kids who would come down to the edge of the ballpark, and they would scream that infamous word and throw stones and whatnot. The old Kresge’s…Go inside and it was [coloured and white fountains]. We had to experience that. The Ambassador Theater – go to the movies – we had to climb 19 stories to the top. By the time you reach the top your popcorn was cold.
About being asked to dance with Jean Early at the Dunbar Hotel in Washington, D.C.:
On Sunday afternoons they used to feature suicide mambo. And that means only the best dancers were allowed to hit the floor when suicide mambo was played…I was standing on the sideline, and I’m working my routine, and my shoulders are going, and I’m watching Jean Early, and I’m watching Paul Hawkins cause they were the champions. They were the dancers of the era. There came this one Sunday when Jean’s partner wasn’t there, and Jean hit the floor, and she turned, and she said, “Chuck Davis, come on!” Boy let me tell you, water ran down my leg and everything. My shoulders went back, I says, “I’m a Capricorn born January the first. I’m gonna hit this floor. Whatever happens, happens.”
On why he traveled to Africa to expand his dance knowledge:
In 1977...I still did not have the African soil between my toes. You see, I didn’t have that dust rising when we dance. When you dance on the dusty earth in commemoration of whatever festive then it comes up and that dust becomes a part of your life. 1977 was my very first trip to Africa. Senegal was my port of call, and I went in. There were dancers, there were musicians…It was a fantastic experience.
On the importance of sharing the traditions of African Dance:
It’s vitally important that I share with you my heritage. Because in sharing with you my heritage then you immediately come back with something from your heritage. And as we talk and move and so forth, at one point it all comes together for you, it all comes together.
His emphatic goodbye to listeners:
Peace, love, respect for everybody, for the elders, and especially for the earth. And know that all of us are here for a purpose. Find yours, because it is about sharing. Give thanks.