The first thing I noticed upon entering the MCC Theatre on Friday night, Nov. 14, was the set of percussionist instruments arrayed onstage. The drums themselves were to be expected, for the performers of the night were the Alafia Dance Ensemble, an Afro-Haitian-Brazilian dance group from San Francisco City College.
After debating with a friend over whether or not any of the drums were congas, I asked one of the musicians what the drums were. Some were indeed congas, but I was told that two of the drums were Atabaques, Brazilian drums used to play religious rhythms and one was a Haitian Petwo used to play rhythms of liberation. The Petwo had caught my eye from the very beginning — its black surface decorated with white figures and patches of red gave it a distinctly tribal look.
Having scanned the Alafia Dance Ensemble’s Facebook page of gorgeous costumes before the show, my eyes were hoping to be hit with brightly colored fabrics from the very start. Admittedly I was a little disappointed when the first two dances featured simple white garments, and were more theatrical than technical in style. But my disappointment was almost immediately assuaged as I watched the dancers channel the suffering and resilience of the African people during times of slavery.
Upon reaching the dance entitled “Empowerment,” the costumes took on color and the dancing became more upbeat, though still earthy and organic. The dancers began to smile at each other, and I could see their movements become more spirited as they fed off each other’s energy and delight. This dance celebrated the Haitian victory at the battle of Vertières, which ended the slave revolution against the French and freed the Haitian people.
Those who came to watch the performance were in for a bit of a surprise — we were not expected to merely sit and watch as third parties — not for this performance. Everyone was asked to stand and follow along as we were lead in creating our own body rhythms. Clapping and slapping our chests and thighs, we were taught to create patterns of three, five and seven. Though this challenge proved too much for some people (who perhaps are more used to the European tradition of even numbered rhythms), it was a great opportunity for the audience to become a part of the production. A simple song was taught, and though I’m sure the melody has been graced with much better singers, it was a welcome mix-up from the expected audience routine.
The final dance of the night, “Libète,” Haitian for “freedom,” was dedicated to Alicia Pierce. A Haitian dance teacher at SFSU, Pierce passed away on Dec. 24, 2008 from breast cancer. The dancers wore red and blue, the main colors of the Haitian flag.
“After the decisive victory over Napoleon’s army [in the Haitian revolution], the French flag consisting of three colors: red, white, and blue, was torn into three pieces so the white strip could be removed,” said Valerie Watson, Alafia’s Artistic Director. “The red and the blue strips were sewn together, symbolizing the unity between blue blooded Africans and the mulattos of Haiti who fought together and successfully defeated the French.” In this piece the dancers used their voices to cry out and yell in defiance against the cultural oppression of the French.
The heart-wrenching history of African and Haitian people could not have been better told to an audience than through the Alafia Dance Ensemble’s choreography. The connection between the audience and stage was strengthened by the rhythms and chants they taught to us, immersing their audience fully into the culture the dancers hoped to share.
You can find the Alafia Dance Ensemble on Facebook at facebook.com/Alafia.Dance.Ensemble.