Preparing for a Residency
Support for AIR proposals
Snake Dance Teacher Dance
Water Spirit Festival
Arthur Hall believes teaching and learning never stop. They are the heartbeat of living, flub-dub, flub-dub, contract, release, learn, teach. He still teaches what he first learned as a young man aspiring to be a dancer. "At that time I wanted to do Indian dancing," inspired by the work of Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Dennis, "but I realize now that I was searching for something I could dedicate myself to.
"I was also impressed by the dances of Joan Kerr working in a contemporary Yiddish idiom, and she encouraged me to work on bringing traditional African forms to the American stage. It was also Joan Kerr who arranged our first concert in 1958 at the YWHA," at Broad and Pine in Philadelphia. "Shawn and Dennis were bringing classical Indian forms to modern dance, and the Joan Kerr Dancers had these angry Jewish dances that would blow you away. It was all very exciting to a young man, and the possibilities went on and on.
"I learned dance etiquette and discipline from Marion Cuyjet," of the Judimar School of Dance in Philadelphia, who also helped mould John Jones and Delores Brown, McCoy Tyner, Ronald Platts, Elmer Ball, and Judith Jamison. "Ms. Cuyjet was the grande dame, and she took no tea for the fever. I quess I got my teaching style from her. She was very strict, a great disciplinarian, but underneath it all you knew she loved you.
"I had danced a little in school, even won some contests, but I didn't know any technique," Arthur recalls in a 1968 newspaper article. "I joined the [Judimar] school and later went on to the Katherine Dunham School in New York," where he studied with Syvilla Fort. Arthur continues to teach Dunham technique to this day.
The real roots of African Festivals in American Schools, however, go back to Saka Acquaye and the West African Cultural Society. "I studied with him three years, and during this time I decided to dedicate myself to keeping this lore in America. After all, there are 20 million black people here, and I think we must know something of our culture. Our people are not aware of their culture and heritage. I saw in the dances a chance to bring grandeur back into blackness," Arthur is quoted as saying in the same 1968 article.
Many of the dances in the school repertoire were originally learned from Saka Acquaye (see Program notes). The same dances formed the basic repetoire for the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble, and when the Ile Ife Center was established in 1968, they were a central part of the children's dance classes and performances by Omo Ife and the Junior Company. From its beginning in the 1950s, the credo for Saka Acquaye's West African Cultural Society was "This is mine. I give it to you. Add some of yourself, and pass it on." ~ an excellent philosophy for any artist or teacher at any time. Arthur Hall has carried it with him for over forty years, and he puts it into practice with each new student, each new class, every rehearsal, every performance.
Saka's credo implies improvisation within traditional forms, an idea inherent in West African culture since time immemorial, an idea that has had as much influence on modern art and contemporary music as it has on modern dance. Inherent in the West African Festival is an expression of community, a traditional expression alive to the moment. African Festivals in American Schools has evolved out of Arthur Hall's years of experience (and discipline and technique) in transposing these traditional concepts to the concert stage and the classroom. The sense of community comes from meaningful dances, appropriate for each student's age and ability, adapted to express the reality that the school is, in fact, a coherent community, albeit one which perhaps never before experienced itself as an African village. Improvisation insures spontaneity, a sense of newness and "nowness," and it permits the inclusion of a wide range of influences, like the Moose Dance in a Maine school or traditional Yoruba carvings that incorporate motorcycles or jet planes.
Arthur Hall has been creating African Festivals in American Schools for many years in schools across the country, touching the lives of tens of thousands (one count by extrapolation puts the figure at about a half million students). He has taught throughout Africa, including Ghana, Nigeria, Zaire, and Mozambique. He has packed an amphitheater in Seoul to see Korean African dancers. He has worked in collaboration with the art historian Perkins Foss to recreate the Urhobo Water Spirit Festival with 350 children from two schools, K-3. Last year for the Montana Ballet, there was a festival which combined Native American Indian, traditional Hawaiian, and student African singers and dancers. Every festival is different. Each demonstrates the importance of the arts in education, strengthening the bonds of the school community and the community at large while enhancing tolerance and appreciation of diverse cultures. In short, African Festivals in American Schools is affirmative action at the grass roots.