AFRICAN DRUMS, DANCE
Helping African-Americans gain an appreciation for their roots and culture is why Robert Dickerson and his wife, Wanda, founded the African Drum and Dance Ensemble in 1984.
“There are a lot of Blacks in this country that are not aware of their heritage and by teaching it to the them through the arts they can appreciate it,” said Dickerson whose son, Jamal is the chief choreographer and artistic director along with his wife, Ronsha.
The Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble is the largest professional, authentic and traditional African dance and drum ensemble—with 72 members—in the United States. It is headquartered in Camden, NJ and boasts members from New Jersey, Philadelphia and Africa. The group includes stilt walkers, African drummers, dancers and storytellers of all ages from all walks of life. Each member of the group is a local or national world Karate champions from the four-time Hall of Fame karate school called the Universal Pasha Karate School.
“All of the people that you will see are Black belts and specialize in Japanese arts and are Black belt in karate. This gives us dependability, respect and love of humanity,” Dickerson said.
The troupe brought its unique brand of entertainment to the Pittsburgh stage for the first time.
“We hope that people will have a good time. We plan to bring 35 people and present one of the best cultural arts shows in America,” Dickerson said before the show. “We hope that once the audience leaves they can leave appreciating the beauty of African arts. We will have a nice vibe going.”
The show, which was held at the New Hazlett Theater on April 20, featured stilt walkers, dancers, drummers, acrobats and ground masquerades.
The Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble was invited to Pittsburgh by Mensa Wali, artistic director of the Kente Arts Alliance who saw the African dance group at a festival in New York.
Founded in 2007, the Kente Arts Alliance is an African-American arts organization whose mission is to present high quality art of the African Diaspora. Its aim is to present art with a purpose by presenting programs that entertain, inform and uplift the residents of underserved communities.
“The Universal African Drum & Dance Ensemble are excing and stimulating. This is a company of people who have been practicing African dance since the 80s when it was created and some have been practicing it from the womb,” Wali said. “The idea of roots is not a fad. It’s not like a style from the 1980s. A tree without roots cannot stand. Because we are in America in the West and we have been seperated by hundreds of and hundreds of years and we lost connections with the roots and the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble is one aspect of that connection.”
Wali said bringing the community together is another reason he wanted to bring the dance and drum ensemble to town.
“If we don’t understand our history we are deemed to repeat it. African people have been doing acrobatics since the beginning of time and this company has been studying the art of African dance and interprets it accurately and they do it with a whole community of people from children to elders,” Wali said. “People should come with an open mind and absorb all that’s being offered.”
The Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble is known for its West African presentations from Guinea, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone. It has performed before world leaders and celebrities. It has performed at numerous prestigious places including the United Nations, New York City, Africa, the Caribbean and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The company’s stilt walkers appeared in the 2011 Lionsgate movie “Warrior.”
(For more information on the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble, visit www.universalafricandance.com or www.unitycommunity.com.)