Celebrating the past, present, and future of Black dance

The International Association of Blacks in Dance and PHILADANCO present THEN NOW NEXT

4 minute read
PHILADANCO cohosts this year’s IABD festival and conference. The company performs on January 18. (Photo by Scott Robbins.)
PHILADANCO cohosts this year’s IABD festival and conference. The company performs on January 18. (Photo by Scott Robbins.)

I attended my first International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) conference 10 years ago in Philadelphia. Now, it is a full-circle moment as we celebrate IABD’s amazing expansion into 2020 on the South Broad Street corridor, with five days of workshops and world-class performances at the Merriam and nearby venues, running January 15 through 19. This year’s conference is titled THEN NOW NEXT.

More than entertainment

As a dancer and arts administrator, I wanted—I needed—to be front and center at any gathering of African American artists. It's extremely important to me to advance the art forms of the African diaspora. But this gathering was special, because it encompassed and empowered the epitome of my work—dance and arts administration. Ten years ago, the conference and festival operated on a very modest project budget, but what it lacked in dollars, it always made up for in talent, with the most legendary and grand performers in Black dance. The festival, including workshops, industry meetings, panels, and audition opportunities, is and always has been a powerful treasure for artists of color.

The IABD conference and festival has become a mecca for Black artists, and partnering with PHILADANCO as its Philly host, the 32nd annual event promises to showcase the best in Black dance. The festival celebrates the performers and those who love to experience the performances. But it’s not just entertainment; it’s preservation of a rich legacy of the history and culture of African Americans.

Dancing legacies

The concept is comprehensive: serious business focused on the preservation and advancement of Black dance and the industry. But it’s also a homecoming and family reunion for many of the artists and administrators who are attending. In the Black tradition of dance, participants respect the elders and pay homage to the work they have accomplished. Honoring the past makes for a new tradition on the roster this year: select master classes dubbed “At the Feet of the Masters” for full festival registrants draw new audiences to the importance of younger practitioners understanding their dance lineage. Who came before you and made your opportunity possible?

Embedded in the rich history and culture of Black dance, early generations of dance artists and choreographers created dance styles, genres, and techniques that have become their legacy. These pioneers and masters passed down their vocabulary, aesthetic, and knowledge to their muses and students, who have continued to preserve their dances and carry the legacy.

Growing IABD

IABD chair and executive director Denise Saunders Thompson said the conference and festival bring together intergenerational Black dance professionals in a way no other organization can. And expansions are on the horizon, thanks to new support from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

See a performance from Dance Theatre of Harlem at THEN NOW NEXT’s January 18 Trailblazers performance. (Photo by Scott Robbins.)
See a performance from Dance Theatre of Harlem at THEN NOW NEXT’s January 18 Trailblazers performance. (Photo by Scott Robbins.)

“This funding opportunity catapulted our organization like never before. It gives us an operational budget that will create access for larger Black arts communities,” Thompson said.

As the national service organization for Black dance professionals for more than 30 years, IABD responds to and initiates dialogue around issues that impact the Black dance community as well as the dance community at large. It boasts an active and supportive network of nearly 400 members, including colleges, universities, and other educational institutions; dance companies; individuals; and presenters; all dedicated to strengthening the culture of Black dance.

Over the years, the festival has featured the best in Black dance, like the legendary Carmen de Lavallade, Tony Award winner George Faison, Bessie Award winner Camille A. Brown, Pew Fellow Rennie Harris, and the iconic Baba Chuck Davis. In addition, the conference exposes younger dancers and dancers from local markets to more diverse, international dance styles.

Festival highlights

This year’s festival theme is to truly discuss, document, and present the legacy of Black dance, including expansive and diverse stage presentations. Another festival favorite has always been the midnight African dance workshop with the late and great Baba Chuck Davis, founder and creator of Dance Africa. This year, the esteemed Assane Konte (cofounder and artistic director of the Washington, DC-based KanKouran West African Dance Company) will present the midnight class as Thursday turns to Friday, from 12am to 2am.

The title “THEN NOW NEXT” refers to intergenerational sharing of culture and legacy, and the passing of the baton to the next generation. Joan Myers Brown, the founder and elder diva of PHILADANCO, coined the name for IABD’s 2020 conference, and it’s fitting for a pioneering experience of extraordinary performances by both legendary and up-and-coming artists, all torch-bearers in the tradition of African American dance.

The highlight of the festival is always the Trailblazers performance (happening this year on Saturday, January 18), featuring companies that have created the foundation for IABD, such as the world-famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dallas Black Dance Theater, and our own PHILADANCO, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

This year, the opening evening presentation on Wednesday, January 15, will be a hit with local audiences: Philly & Friends will feature Just Sole! Street Dance Theater Company, Kulu Mele African Dance and & Drum Ensemble, the University of the Arts, and more. For the full line-up of events, visit the festival online.

What, When, Where

THEN NOW NEXT, the 32nd Annual International Conference and Festival of Blacks in Dance. Presented by the International Association of Blacks in Dance and PHILADANCO January 15 through 19, 2020, at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., Philadelphia; and other nearby venues.

The Merriam is a century-old venue with wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms. The front doors are heavy. Wheelchair-accessible seats require navigating a steep and crooked aisle, and accessible bathrooms are reached by an elevator exactly as wide as a wheelchair. Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance from the extremely kind and patient staff members.

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