Telling the Afrikan Story Through Dance

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For African Americans, cultural dancing is a way to connect to the past. Steps and rhythms are combined to tell the stories of traditions we had been removed from and of communities we have since grown a part from. In Rochester, one dance school is using a combination of ballet and African dance to bring those stories to life.

Ballet Afrikana, located at 1024 Garson Ave, is owned by husband and wife team Ashley and Lomax Campbell. The studio holds classes in various techniques including classical ballet and Afro Beat, a fusion of hip-hop, modern and West African dance.

“There’s a popular quote by Alvin Ailey that speaks to how we value music and technique at Ballet Afrikana. ‘Dance came from the people and needs to be delivered back to the people,'” said Ashley Campbell co- founder of Ballet Africana.

Studying at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in her native Washington D.C., Campbell was exposed to a strict and culturally centered dance education. She not only learned dance techniques but found pride in her identity through her teachers.

Wanting to share that pride and over 20 years’ experience with the Rochester community, Ashely and her husband founded Ballet Afrikana in March 2014. They also teach modern dance and yoga.

“My proudest moment as a teacher and owner is seeing students learn and watching them grow. I am humbled to watch their process,”- Campbell

“Many parents…believe it will be great to have their child dancing and learning about their culture at the same time. Many of the dancers in the adult classes talk about how the classes (Modern and Kemetic Yoga, specifically) act as therapy for them,” said Campbell who believes while students take classes to fulfill various needs, they all ultimately move closer to an understanding of their own heritage.

But, while understanding where the dances originates is vital to the schools principles, like other studios, the goal is to learn the technique as well as perform. Ballet Afrikana hosts their First Fruits: The Spirit of Kwanzaa event where students showcase what they have learned in the fall semester. Students from the school are also invited to perform at events around town, including this year’s Clothesline arts festival in Downtown Rochester.

“My proudest moment as a teacher and owner is seeing students learn and watching them grow. I am humbled to watch their process,” said Campbell.

Ashley Campbell leads a class of students through a routine practice class. Credit: Tianna Mañón

Ashley Campbell leads a class of students through a routine practice class. Credit: Tianna Mañón

Standing apart from other dance studios in the area, Ballet Afrikana is highly focused on telling the stories of the black community as it was and as it is. Forgoing often Eurocentric stories commonly told on stage, the school uses dance to share African-based stories or creates their own. Ballet Afrikana’s Ballet 1 class performed a piece called “Black Pot Rochester” which highlighted the life of black youth in the city through their own eyes.

“It is important to us that Ballet Afrikana is a part of the many schools, institutions, organizations and companies who are committed to ‘going back and fetching’ our stories and retelling them for our current and future generations,” said Campbell who says the interruption of our heritage caused by the slave trade made it almost impossible to retrieve the stories, but through dance and traditions we are able to hold on to them even today.

To learn any style of dance requires discipline and practice. Adding an element of cultural education to the process can give dance and performance a deeper meaning. For students at Ballet Afrikana, that meaning comes in the form of performing stories that can be shared with the black community for generations to come.

You can visit Ballet Afrikana in their studio at the House of Shu Wellness Center, located at 1024 Garson Avenue in Rochester, NY. They will be hosting their First Fruits: The Spirit of Kwanzaa on December 17, 2017 at the Harmony House in Webster. The show begins at 2:00 p.m. For more information about the event or other information about Ballet Afrikana visit balletafrikana.com or contact the studio at balletafrikana@gmail.com