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Professor builds community through dance, African pride
Dancing for Justice

Professor builds community through dance, African pride

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CHARLOTTE — There are many peaceful ways to get your message across in protest: Marches, sit-ins, taking a knee. Tamara Williams, an assistant professor of dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, uses dance.

She co-founded Dancing for Justice, which she described as "a method of calling attention to injustices."

"It's basically putting the body out in the street and saying: 'We are here. We want equal rights. We want equal opportunity.'"

Dance is also a way to connect her to "ancestral memories, elders and community," the Augusta, Georgia, native said. Those elements will appear in a short (under 10-minute) dance film she's making with Moving Spirits dance company to commemorate Juneteenth, which celebrates the emancipation of Black people who had been enslaved.

But that's not all Williams has on her plate. She's also researching African-American ring shout dance traditions and launching a Bloco-Afro group in Charlotte to help reinforce pride in African heritage and culture through music and dance.

Williams is working with Moving Spirits (which she founded in New York a decade ago) and local filmmaker Marlon Morrison to create her film, "ÌBÀ OBÍNRIN." The film explores the western African ethnic group Yoruba's tradition of honoring earth, air, fire and water — the elements of nature. (Loosely translated, the title means "in honor of feminine energy.")

Williams is a priestess of Ifá and Ṣàngó in Ìṣẹ̀ṣe Ẹ̀sìn Òrìṣà Ìbílẹ̀, a traditional spiritual practice.

She'll film "ÌBÀ OBÍNRIN" outdoors, including some on a former plantation site in Reedy Creek Park. The dance, she said, is based on "the strength and beauty of women."

"I'm drawing a comparison here," she said, reaching for what looked like a bottle-shaped gourd. "This is a calabash — a shaker made from the calabash tree. They're very familiar in Yoruba culture. The calabash is cut open, and ritualistic things are carried inside.

"It holds water, and the womb has water," she said. "The calabash can be used as a drum — a call to come together. Women are usually the ones calling children and community together. The comparison of woman, womb and calabash — that's the impetus for the work."

She and Morrison worked together last year to create "Remembrance," a dance film showcasing "ring shout," a dance of African origin originally done by enslaved people.

Always choosing locations imbued with meaning, Williams and Morrison shot "Remembrance" at the Siloam School on the banks of the Catawba River at what once was a slave dwelling.

There were once thousands of such Rosenwald schools built in the South in the early 1900s to educate Black children during segregation. The program was conceived by Booker T. Washington and financed by Sears Roebuck President Julius Rosenwald.

RESEARCHING AFRICAN-AMERICAN TRADITIONS

Williams has a lot going on to keep her on her toes. The dancer/scholar recently won an Emerging Creators fellowship from the Arts & Science Council, which she'll use to support her research of the African-American ring shout traditions — one of her main areas of research.

"This was a form of worship," said Lydia Heidt, one of Williams' former students. "Dancers form a circle and make a shuffling-type movement, and everybody moves in a circle. The movements themselves represent things people do every day. You might reach down to the floor, really low, as if you're pulling crops out of the ground. You might move as if you're rocking a baby."

Heidt, a dance major, graduated from UNCC last May. She's now teaching dance and is a member of both Moving Spirits and Baran Dance, led by Audrey Baran, a UNCC assistant professor of dance.

RING SHOUT DANCE

Williams originally came to UNCC in 2016 to teach African-Brazilian dance. She's since expanded her offerings and now teaches a course she created called Ring Shout Dance Traditions.

"It's similar to African-Brazilian dance in that the people who were brought to Brazil from Africa were captured from the same areas as those who were brought to America," she said. "Those people brought a tradition called ring shout."

Only dance majors can take the Ring Shout course, but Williams' African-Brazilian class is open to anyone at the university.

The first year Williams offered that course, she had six students. Today, there's usually a waiting list to get in. "When I ask students why they signed up," she said, "many will say, 'It sounded like fun.' "

Heidt called it her favorite class. "I tell anybody, even if they're not a dancer, that they have to take that class. It is just so energetic. The movement itself — I've never done anything like it"

Williams also teaches students how to teach dance.

Her class, Dancing in the Community, meets on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Fridays, her students go out into the community to teach while she observes. They have taught at Camino Community Center, which serves low-income, mostly Hispanic families, and Aldersgate, a retirement community.

Heidt took that class for two semesters.

"Tamara uses dance to bring awareness to political issues and also just to bring joy. She has inspired me; I wasn't aware of what a dance community could be until I took her class."

BLOCO-AFRO MUSIC AND DANCE

Williams and Moving Spirits also recently got an ASC Culture Block grant to launch "Bloco-Afro" in Charlotte. Blocos-Afros originated in Salvador, Brazil, in the 1970s to reinforce pride in African heritage and culture through music and dance.

Blocos-Afros bring neighbors together to share skills and knowledge along the bloco, which is Portuguese for "block."

Williams will use the grant to purchase instruments and dance clothes to provide for community members who want to participate but need those items. That's the spirit of Bloco-Afro.

"Following the Black Power movement in the United States," Williams said, "there became a huge movement in Brazil to honor Black and African heritage, spiritual practices, education, attire and culinary arts that come from Africa."

Williams and her husband, Luciano Xavier da Silva, a Brazilian percussionist whom she met while studying the Silvestre dance technique in Brazil, launched the virtual Bloco Afro Ayedun in March. Ayedun is a Yoruba word meaning "life is sweet".

Offered at no charge to the community, it's a hybrid of dance, music, culinary arts and arts education.

The dance technique seems custom made for Williams.

"It's very connected to nature," Heidt said. "It was the first class I had with Tamara. I knew then, I needed to work with her for the rest of my college career."

With Silvestre, it feels like the movement is feeding you, Heidt said. "It's not just movement for movement's sake. It connects you with the environment and people around you."

Bloco-Afros are also about connections. "No one pays, everyone shares," Williams said of the concept. "You could share a recipe or a culinary session. If someone does construction work, he could lead a session on home repairs."

Williams' Blocos-Afros began virtually, but will eventually — in July, she hopes — become an in-person event at Freedom Park.

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