“Tonight’s show is dedicated to all the young people that we have lost this year,” said Vershawn Sanders, Red Clay Dance’s artistic director, in her introduction to the dance company’s annual “Youth Dance Explosion,” Dance 4 Peace. Founded in 2008 as a professional, touring dance company, Red Clay Dance strives to provide a positive venue of communal, peaceful expression while educating local communities about a shared artistic and cultural heritage of the African diaspora.
At the start of Dance 4 Peace last Saturday, the spacious auditorium of the Gary Comer Youth Center, so usually bathed in light coming through its glass walls, went slowly dark in anticipation for the night’s first dance act. Eight young women dressed in black, each with a long white handkerchief, walked solemnly onto the stage. Representing the Red Clay Dance Club, the dancers opened the night with strong, powerful movements to “Why We March” by the the Civil Rights Opera Project. The group created a compelling narrative of cultural fusion and historical re-creation through their incorporation of classical ballet technique with deep African rhythms, occasionally breaking into step-inspired footwork. At certain moments throughout the piece, the dancers used their bodies to evoke the-bending labor carried out by their enslaved African ancestors.
The night’s performances spanned a variety of dance techniques, from ballet and tap to modern, each infused with a particular flavor of African rhythms and hip-hop beats. A common theme of violence and conflict resolution resonated throughout the choreography, as dancers used their bodies to imitate physical contact and retaliation, conveying emotional reactions of pain, confusion, resolve, and forgiveness.
“The youth that come to the Gary Comer Youth Center come from all different neighborhoods and communities,” said EbonÃ© Lewis, program manager of Red Clay Dance’s Community Engagement, Education and Partnerships program. Lewis spoke in an intermission video describing Red Clay’s mission and projects. “I can see within the Red Clay Dance Club the friendships being formed. We strive to build that sense of family and unity. No matter where you come from, you can come into the dance room and have your voice be heard, for your voice to be respected, and to be a part of something that’s greater than yourself.”