looking back/dancing forward
Story and Photographs by Dagney C. Ernest
It starts with the rhythm. The Belfast Dance Studio reverberates with the sound of hand meeting goatskin, channeled through wood. There are five drummers in all, four playing congas and one using a stick and a cowbell. As their playing begins to coalesce, Arthur Hall rises from a chair which leans against the mirrored wall and begins to walk towards the 25 or so dance students who are grouped in five lines across one end of the studio space.
Hall's steps become shuffles as he cuts through the woven polyrhythms to pluck out the underlying beat. His feet, wide and worn from years of dancing sole to soil, push along the polished floor in purposeful cadence: shoop, shoop, shoop, shoop. The rest of his body hangs relaxed over this precise locomotion. The dance students, mostly women in their 30s, start across the floor in a more studied rendition of their teacher's seemingly organic movement.
As the class progresses, Hall adds arm and hand movements, subdivides that beginning beat, adds other body parts one by one until the dancers' movements begin to shadow the drummers' complexity. The instruction is non-verbal. Hall gestures to the drummer whose beat he wants accentuated for a given sequence; as he begins each new lesson, he catches the eyes of the long-term students, most of whom wear an unofficial uniform of unitard or leotard with a hip-drape of African print cloth.
One of these is the studio's owner, Lisa Newcomb. She brings up the rear of the group, keeping a watchful eye on both dancers and instructor. Hall maintains a quiet dignity of an approachable sort: He fades back to the mirror to observe the students as they work their way across the floor, but doesn't hesitate to pull up his T-shirt so that one of them can better understand a hip movement.
As the class progresses and the studio heats up, the dancers begin to let go, to throw themselves into the just-learned sequences with more abandon. Hall flashes bright grins of encouragement to the enthusiastic beginners while signalling to the more advanced students in order to help them find the subtle nuances within the larger movements. After a number of passes across the floor, Hall herds the dancers to one corner with a nod. Each student creates his or her own dance down to the drummers on the opposite corner of the studio, giving them a salute at the end. The percussionists respond with a grand finish, which is met by the dancers slapping their hands against the floor. After a few minutes of stretching, the dancers file out of the studio, glistening with sweat and glowing with whatever-it-is that makes Afro-Caribbean dancing such a pleasure to pursue for a surprising number of Maine folk (including me).
"I hear that all the time," says Arthur Hall, when I tell him this dance form just seems to fit the best for me. All body types were represented in the class just concluded, from a prepubescent slip-of-thing to ladies like me, pushing 40 and tipping the scales a bit. "It's because it comes FROM somewhere," i.e., community expression and the religious traditions of West Africa rather than an aesthetic ideal. "I sit there and see each body, each person ... and each one is perfectly beautiful within their own mode and with what they have to offer."
Hall doesn't get to sit very often, having spent much of his life traveling around the country and the world, teaching and choreographing African dance. Born and raised in Tennessee, Hall first appeared on stage in 1950 with the National Negro Opera Company. He came into his own in Philadelphia, studying dance at the Judimar School under greats like Marion Cuyjet, John Hines and Joe Nash; Alvin Ailey star Judith Jamison was a classmate. It was in Philadelphia he founded the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble, the Ile Ife Center for the Arts and Humanities, a Museum of African Art and the first African religious shrine officially recognized in the United States.
The dancer came to Maine in the late 1970s as an artist-in-residence at schools outside Portland and Augusta. It was one of many such residencies Hall provided while serving as one of eight movement specialists for the American Dance Festival and the National Endowment for the Arts. Hall had wondered about Maine as a child, because it is "as far away from Memphis as I could imagine." The program, which gave Hall a special choreographer's award in 1971, is no longer federally funded, but he still manages to land residencies during the school year, returning to Maine whenever he can, especially during the summer months.
Even when he's not in-state, Arthur Hall has good reason to consider Maine his home base. In 1980, the same year he was given Pennsylvania's Hazlett Award for Excellence in the Arts by then-Governor Dick Thornburg (other honorees included Eugene Ormandy and Jimmy Stewart), Hall founded Camden's People to People Dance Company and served as its first artistic director. The company still thrives, focusing on ballet and lyrical modern dance. People who have studied with Hall have become colleagues, notably Newcomb who, in addition to running the Belfast Dance Studio, directs the Celebration Dancers and Drummers with longtime associate Jeff Densmore covering the percussion end of things. Erma Colvin, one of celebration's founding members, teaches classes in Union, Southwest Harbor and various school systems and has created the Mkhere Dance Ensemble.
The trend holds true back in Philadelphia where there are, at any given time, eight or so troupes considered offshoots of Hall's original work in the inner city. Van Williams and Rita Cottman Johnson, active in the Young Audiences program in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have also traveled to Maine for performances. Hall says he's beginning to relax into his legacy, quoting one of his own teachers: "[The knowledge] is mine, I give it to you. Add some of your own and pass it on."
Hall's school residencies in Maine have yielded unexpected boons and sorrows for the artist. Adam Smith of Camden began studying drums during one of Hall's sojourns there and grew up to become a gifted associate, traveling with Hall as his regular drummer. The partnership ended in sudden tragedy last fall when Smith died in a car accident during a hometown stopover. It is a loss Hall still feels keenly, personally and professionally: "I keep expecting to meet up with him somewhere."
And that initial residency at Winthrop Elementary School resulted in Snake Dance Teacher Dance, an award-winning film by Huey, Abbott Meader and Bruce Williams. The independent filmmakers have taken up the task of documenting Hall's work via videotape, film and still photography, under the auspices of Ile Ife Films and The Arthur Hall Collection, based with Williams in Searsport. The nonprofit corporation promotes and documents Hall's work from Philadelphia to the present; its films and videotapes are currently available in the Art Works and American Dance Festival catalog.
Now that he's moving through his second half-century, the time seems right for Arthur Hall, master teacher and performer, to start putting down more than seasonal roots. Having been such a seminal influence in Philadelphia's Afro-American arts community, Hall is now looking to establish "an interracial, multicultural dance company" here in his beloved Maine. Rockland, a small coastal city going through a post-industrial renaissance of sorts, seems a likely location. Dancers from Philadelphia joined those in Maine earlier this month at the Farnsworth Art Museum there (Hall has had professional relationships with many museums over the years including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago; this was his first such collaboration in the Pine Tree State).
Although one dance space prospect in the city did not pan out, Hall remains optimistic about planting some kind of stake in Rockland. Next on his agenda, however, is a residency with the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, one of only 10 National Dance Residency program grants awarded last year. Hall will work with Muntu and Preservation Hall in New Orleans to reconstruct and stage Fat Tuesday and All That Jazz , a work he created in 1977 which was broadcast on PBS' Great Performances / Live from Wolf Trap series. "It traces the Black diaspora, from Africa into New Orleans, ending in a jazz funeral through the theater to the stage." The full-length ballet will preview in Chicago at the end of the year, with the premiere set for May of 1997. Fat Tuesday and All That Jazz may be the first of several reconstruction projects. Hall is seeking funding via the National Initiative to Preserve American Dance and other such historically minded sources in order to preserve his full-length works.
Meanwhile, Hall continues to gather colleagues around him for his international troupe and to create new works: Obatala and Shango, performed at the Farnsworth, premiered at the Camden Opera House last December at the "Rhythm of Life" concert celebrating the life and spirit of Adam Smith. Hall portrays Obatala, the patron of artists and Father of Laughter, the calm and passive King of the White Cloth. Shango, the active and passionate god of lightning and thunder, is danced by Cathy Butler-Corish, a Gardner postal worker and competitive bodybuilder. Another star performer in December was John Jenkins, five times past international Karate Jiu-Jitsu champion and current mayor of Lewiston. There's no lack of talent in Maine, says Arthur Hall, and he is determined his next company be based here: "I'm not leaving; this is it."
Arthur Hall is back on the road but you can still explore Afro-Caribbean dancing and drumming:
BELFAST ~ Afro-Caribbean Dance classes with Richard Gonzalez and Blanche Brown and Drum Workshop with Barry Duke run August 5-16 at the Belfast Dance Studio. Call for times and rates at 338-5380. Choreography class: Two-week participants are invited to perform at Sankofa; Drum Class, Sankofa rehearsal. Sankofa is a multicultural street festival, 3 to 6 p.m., August 17. See you there!
Southwest Harbor & Union ~ Erma Colvin's weekly African Dance classes resume in the fall. For information, call 845-2664.
For more information about Arthur Hall, Ile Ife and the Arthur Hall Collection, visit their website at http://IleIfe.org