February 7, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College
Two dance companies—Ballet International Africans, led by artistic director Amini Hecksall, and Kinetic Afrique, led by choreographer and dancer Damon Foster—presented over an hour of dance and drumming to kick off African American Heritage Month.
The well-known performers drew about 200 students, faculty and staff in the large open space outside Richard Harris Terrace, even attracting audience from outside BMCC.
“I used to dance in Korea and America, too—ballet and modern,” said Seulgi Baek, a criminal psychology major at John Jay College. “My professor recommended the performance.”
“I heard about it from the CUNY Alumni Club,” said Jessica Barnes, who is earning a master’s degree in international relations from City College.
Giovanni Slowly, an accounting major at BMCC, was there because “I have a passion for dance; the movement, free spiritedness and creativity,” he said, and another accounting major, Janelle Gould-Steele, added, “I’m taking a class with Professor Hollerbach, and we’re studying the history of African music. I love the drums, the rhythm. It’s different from what I typically hear.”
Dance creates a village
An audience was fast filling the space outside Richard Harris Terrace as four drummers took their place and Amina Hecksall danced onto the stage.
“Welcome to our village!” she called out to the crowd. Four dancers joined her, in flowing pastel costumes. The next dance was performed in orange-and-black costumes that accentuated their movements with cowrie shells and fringe. Men performed in colorful, traditional African fabrics and in one solo, a dancer wore an elongated wooden mask.
The dancers rattled Malian shakers and calabash bowls, and aligned their movements with the complicated drumming, at times reaching to the sky, or gesturing toward the floor.
“That’s paying homage to the sun and earth,” Amina Heckstall explained later.
“It’s a language between the dancer and the drummer,” said BMCC student and aspiring dancer Keshia Sinclair. “You have to be in sync with each other.”
Everybody on the dance floor
As one group of dancers left the stage, someone in the audience called out, “We wanna dance too!” and one of the drummers—without, no pun intended, missing a beat—called back, “You wanna dance?”
It didn’t take a lot of coaxing to get BMCC students on the dance floor. One by one, they took turns matching the drummers’ music with their moves.
One of the students who joined in the fun was liberal arts major Jasmine McDonald, who introduced herself to choreographer Damon Foster after the show.
Unbeknownst to Foster, McDonald’s mother is one of his current students at the DeVore Dance Center in Queens, where Jasmine herself intends to take classes.
Decades of dance
Damon Foster began dance lessons at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Art Center when he was seven years old, and by age 14, he was teaching dance at the Center.
“I’ve been dancing for 27 years,” Foster said, “I’ve performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and The Apollo Theater.”
A widely respected instructor of West African dance, he specializes in the traditional dance of Guinea, and has taught in numerous studios and theaters, including The Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn.
Amina Heckstall, who has accrued over 30 years of dance training, is known for her work teaching dance to the youth of New York City, and has traveled to Senegal to teach traditional West African dance.
Her awards include the Sam and May Rudin Foundation Community Service Fellowship in Arts Education, and she is a 4-time recipient of The Citizens For New York’s Building Blocks and New Neighbors Grant.
Heckstall and Foster put together a program of traditional African dance that enthralled the crowd, many of whom were recording the event on their phones and IPads.
“Damn, that’s pretty good,” a young man said to himself during one of the performances.
He was not alone in his assessment. During each dance, mesmerized audience members quietly spoke their praise:
“That is awesome.”