In face of oppression, CADD conference encourages dance 'through joy'

Dance Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz, pictured, is one of the founding members of CADD, which holds its annual conference next month.
Dance Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz, pictured, is one of the founding members of CADD, which holds its annual conference next month.

In 2012, a group of 12 researchers and artists met at Duke to talk about dance. Two years later, they created the first Collegium for African Diaspora Dance Conference. Now, in 2018, CADD continues to bring together people interested in African diaspora dance — from young students to seasoned professionals — to take part in a third international gathering to celebrate dance.

The conference will take place Feb. 16 to 18 and is free for Duke students, faculty and staff. Most of the events on the first day will be in the East Duke building, but the conference will primarily take place in the new Rubenstein Arts Center Feb. 17 and 18. Thomas F. DeFrantz, professor of dance and African American studies, said the collegium expects about 200 registrants and 100 presenters to attend. Student groups from other universities and local high schools will also be in attendance.

The biannual conference takes on a different theme each year, which Shireen Dickson, producer and administrator of the conference, said is collectively decided by members of CADD. This year’s theme is “Dance Black Joy: Global Affirmations and Defiance” and seeks to respond to the conversations surrounding violence toward and marginalization of African-Americans. Dickson said the conference intends to focus on opposing the oppression of African-Americans and how people can use dance “to overcome, to resist and to rebuild.”

DeFrantz said the conference theme also intends to encourage people to dance “toward joy” while still being activists.

“How can we be activists and feminists and anti-misogynists and supportive of trans and queer rights and values and supportive of the land and all of our relatives around the world and still dance through our joy?” DeFrantz said. “That’s the main question of the conference.”

DeFrantz was one of the founding members of CADD, which is a project of his research group SLIPPAGE. CADD was created to answer what DeFrantz and other members saw as a need for a deep study of African diaspora dance, and the group’s main goal is to share information both within the dance scholar community and with the general public.

The conference works to tell those stories, focusing equally on dance as on research and information sharing. This dual nature reflects DeFrantz’s interests in both dance and writing, passions he’s been trying to combine since childhood. He said his reading and writing helped him better understand his dance, and his dance helped him write as well.

“They’re both very valuable,” DeFrantz said. “[The conference is] not mostly talking and some dancing, and it’s not mostly dancing and some talking — it’s both, they go together.”

This year’s conference will include three keynote speakers: Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Melissa Blanco Borelli and Marianna Francisca Martins Monteiro. DeFrantz said Gottschild is the “most influential thinker and writer about African diaspora dance” who is still living today. Borelli won the American Society of Dance History Scholars De La Torre Bueno Prize for best book in Dance Studies in 2016 for her book, “She is Cuba: A Genealogy of the Mulata Body,” and Dickson said Borelli will present on that topic. Monteiro is a Brazilian filmmaker as well as a dance and theater scholar.

The conference will also feature a performance by SLIPPAGE, who will perform a piece called CANE, which was originally created in 2013. According to SLIPPAGE’s website, the piece “explores memories of African American sharecropping held by a technologically-devised canefield.”

The 2018 conference will differ from those of 2014 and 2016 in that it will also devote time to honoring the legacy of Chuck Davis, who was founder of DanceAfrica and the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham. He opened the past conferences but died last year, so CADD wants to honor his life and contribution to the study of African Dance. DeFrantz described Davis as a “father figure and leader” to everyone in dance studies. There will be a panel discussion as well as an extended processional in tribute to him.

Other panel topics include historically black colleges and universities and diversity in higher education, from both a pedagogical and academic perspective. The conference will have a variety of paper presentations and dance workshops, including any type of dance, from J-Setting to salsa. Dickson said many participants look forward to the CADD conference, as it creates an atmosphere like a family reunion.

“It’s definitely a space of rigorous academic and artistic investigation, but it’s also a space that’s welcoming,” Dickson said. “It’s a space that allows us to experiment, and it’s a space that allows you to relax outside of some of the stringent demands of academia as it stands right now.”


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