Ubuntu, the Black History Month dance concert, showcased the work of Elon University dancer majors and students who went to Ghana over Winter Term on Monday in McCrary Theatre.
The West African dance show is focused on the central theme of celebrating life and the past, as well as building community.
“The show is about celebrating history and remembering the past,” said Assistant Professor of Dance Jason Aryeh. “It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be bad. We’re just celebrating what we know.”
Aryeh took 19 students to Ghana this past Winter Term on the Ghana: Performing Arts in Cultural Context trip to learn West African dance and perform for schools and churches across the country. He choreographed these dances and acts as the artistic director of the show.
This is his sixth year putting on the Black History Month dance performance, which focuses on a certain theme each year.
Ubuntu, this year’s theme, is being interpreted as coming together to support everybody in a community.
“Ubuntu is an African word that has so many translations,” Aryeh said. “But where I am actually deriving this from, it’s how we can support a community regardless of color, race, ethnicity, background–regardless. How we can support each other in the community–Elon community.”
Aryeh hopes that exposing Elon to this culture will not only connect the community through culture, but also spark conversation about history. He hopes the audience will use this performance to connect with life.
“My choreographic works for the show has a lot of West African traditional and contemporary dance that celebrates events, that celebrate life,” Aryeh said. “Passage of rights. Talk about harvest. Talk about birth, childbirth. Talk about even death… These are movements that celebrate all these passage of rights. It’s just something that I love to bring people together to be able to understand that history doesn’t always have to be good to remember, but then, we can also remember the bad ones just to celebrate them and then know how to move forward.”
The students performing in the dance agree that it’s important for the Elon community to be exposed to this culture, especially during Black History Month. They commented on how this performance adds to the conversation surrounding Black History Month.
“I think for this school specifically, I don’t think it necessarily adds, but it starts the conversation,” said senior Victoria Parrish. “I think that we’re not having those conversations and I think that a program like this, more people are going to go to because … it’s a performing arts show. It’s more likely to reach a broader audience, and I think once you have that broader audience here and you’re introducing them to this subject, then that starts the conversation.”
Junior musical theater major Breia Kelley echoed Parrish’s perspective.
“This concert, I participated last year and I sang and I danced and it’s extremely important … because a lot of people here, they don’t know anything about this, and they need to learn, 100 percent,” Kelley said. “I think it’s actually one of the most important concerts that we have here at Elon, just for everyone to come and experience and learn something new because I’m sure that people haven’t even tried to learn.”
She continued, “A lot of people don’t understand why there is a Black History Month to begin with, and this concert gives them the reason, in my opinion. I think that by them coming and seeing this one little event, their perspective will change because of course, they see ‘Black Lives Matter’ and it just seems like every black person is either wearing an African something. They need to know that we are proud of where we come from and we’re not afraid to show them where we come from. They will see that through this concert.”
Although this is a Black History Month event, most of the students involved are white. Out of the 19 students who went to Ghana, seven are African American, which comes to 36.8 percent. On the other hand, African Americans make up 5.6 of the Elon student body, according to College Factual.
Erika Swinney, the stage manager and a junior, didn’t dance but played drums on the Ghana trip. She said it sometimes makes her uneasy to think about those numbers.
“Talking about race on this campus … there’s a small amount of African Americans in the performing arts program, specifically,” Swinney said. “In one of the pieces with the Elon dance program, there’s only one black dancer, and she’s the only girl in the dance program who is African American. Sometimes it’s hard for me to watch these things … It’s the Black History Month concert, but you only have one black dancer, so sometimes it is very hard to watch that and be like, that’s not historically accurate.”
Kelley holds a different view on the matter.
“Because I’m a music theater major, I dance with white people all the time,” Kelley said. “It’s great, it’s fine, I have nothing against white people. To be honest, it wasn’t anything like this was bad, this was good; we’re all artists and we all come together and I think it’s very important that white people go to Ghana because it is not just a trip for black people.”
And Aryeh strives to unite people, regardless of race, through sharing experiences and sharing his culture.
“The audience is going to see white people beautifully dancing West African movement, and that is a culture shock,” he said. “I have had a lot of statements when I’m teaching West African dance, a lot of students turn to say, ‘Well, I can’t get this movement because I feel I’m white.’ And I keep telling them, it’s not about your color. It’s about understanding and feeling what you’re doing. So I think that the biggest culture shock for me is for the audience to see myself and the other colored students dancing in the midst of white students that also dance beautifully, just like them.”
Another huge lesson the students who went to Ghana hope to share with Elon is to appreciate the little things.
“It changed my perspective on the value of life, the value of the little things, because in Ghana, they do have less, but they’re not living in this way to where they’re in want of what we in America have,” Parrish said. “They’re still enjoying every little thing and the happiness there and the appreciation that they have is inspiring."
“The one thing I can do or can advise on the people is really appreciate the little things that you have,” said senior Kam Williams, one of the few male dancers. “Here, we don’t appreciate the little things. As soon as I got back here someone was complaining about a phone or this and that… It’s not that big of a deal. There are other places that don’t have it like we have it.”
“There are people from the other side of the world. They exist, and it’s beautiful to interact with them,” Williams said. “Always be blessed and amazed by experiencing the culture. The main thing is learn from it, consume it, take it in and walk with it. Also know that of course we’re all human.”