By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Claudia Lewis is back with the Nathifa Dance Company and Outreach and this time to stay.
Lewis discovered the dance company 13 years ago with a desire to learn African dance, stayed through her first two pregnancies, but took a break in 2007 after having her third child. The break lasted nine years.
“We’re back, permanently,” she said during a recent interview, referring also to her three oldest daughters ages 13, 11 and 6.
Lewis is a dancer with Nathifa Dance Company and Outreach, an African, Caribbean, modern and creative dance, poetry and drum class in Birmingham, founded and led by LaVondia Bryant.
Nathifa, which is Arabic and means clear and pure, with six dancers and two drummers, will celebrate its 25th anniversary on June 9 at the Dance Foundation in Homewood. To celebrate, the group is recognizing the state of Alabama’s bicentennial with a performance piece called “What It’s Like to be in a Place with a Vision Called Alabama.”
“As we showcase this piece of new works we have dancers doing body movements that represent love, creativity, and growth,” Bryant said. “All of it is done to live music.”
Lewis said the celebration is significant, especially in the South.
“You don’t see (African culture) at the forefront. You don’t see it being taught, especially to our black children and you want to have an understanding of it,” Lewis said. “It’s important because there’s a need for it.”
“The 25th anniversary is a celebration of all that LaVondia has done and endured over 25 years. So, it’s time to celebrate. And it’s a witness to longevity and endurance and that’s something that’s inspiring to any culture, any race. They can see an organization of outreach and consistency. That can be celebrated with people of all cultures and backgrounds.”
Drums are a big part of African dance, Bryant said.
“Drums set the atmosphere for any ceremony,” she said. “Whether it’s a wedding, birth, death, a celebration of birth (birthdays), family reunions. Drums are the most powerful instruments, nothing’s louder than a drum. You just connect to it.”
“It’s a personal thing,” she said. “Hearing drums is a mind meditation, a discipline, because we cannot change the movement until drums tell us. When people want to see a performance, we have to know the purpose because our goal is to tell a story.”
Two drummers, Bryson Searcy Dudley and Nkosi Johnson will perform at the 25th anniversary on the dunun and djembe drums.
Johnson, who is Bryant’s son, said he was raised on drums and African dance.
Dudley, currently a student at South Hampton K-8 School, said he joined the class because he has an interest in drumming, but he’d met Bryant when he was younger.
“I got into African drum recently when I came to one of my cousin’s practices; she dances with Nathifa,” he said. “I realized her dance teacher actually taught me and substituted at my old school. She saw that I wanted to play the drums, so she let me.”
Learning about his heritage is important, Dudley said, and he’s glad that Nathifa is there to teach him.
“To make it to 25 years – not a lot of companies make it to 25 years – it’s a standard. It’s a standard that not many people hold,” he said. “I’m glad they made it this long.”
Bryant, who was born in Birmingham, was raised in Brooklyn, New York. When she was 19 years old she moved back to Birmingham in June 1986.
“When I came back to Birmingham and I was looking for dance, African dance, culture dance,” she said. “The city started growing with the Birmingham African Heritage Festival, City Stages, The Magic City Art Connection, that was when funding was enhancing in the state of Alabama. I started doing workshops and being part of festivals.”
Though they do not have a permanent studio and Nathifa has rehearsed all over the city including The Dance Foundation in Homewood, as well as at various churches and studios.
Bryant said she has collaborated with the Birmingham Board of Education, Community Education, Better Basics, enrichment programs, Birmingham Parks and Recreation. She said the dance company tours the state of Alabama, “so we pretty much may use space in terms of in kind services for company rehearsals to showcase the cultured arts of diversity here in Birmingham.”
Bryant didn’t begin with African dance. Originally, it was ballet.
“I actually started with ballet and modern dance through the Alvin Ailey Dance Company,” she said. “My first summer job was working at an off-Broadway theater. It just so happened that it was an African dance class going on. The director said that I was able to take any class I want since I was part of the staff. So, (I chose) the African dance class.”
Bryant said simply, “I’m not a ballerina, I’m too aggressive. I found me in African dance. I love my culture. African dance in drums just did something. I think what really penetrated me and stimulated my mind for African dance was living in a place called Alabama. The city (of Birmingham) didn’t have a lot of diversity when I first came back here (in 1986). I wanted to be part of something that wasn’t here.”