When you talk about African dance, you’re talking about dozens of countries and thousands of cultures. But for Aviwe Zuri Diosa DuBois, 17, African dance also means leadership, history and family.
“Most people think African-American history starts with slavery. But we’re much, much older than that. There is so much more to our history,” says the Chicago High School for the Performing Arts (ChiArts) senior.
DuBois, a dancer with Nunufatima Dance Company and a student at Les Enfants Dance, is among an elite group of talented teens slated to perform Sept. 22 at the Chicago Youth Art Showcase Festival (YAS!). The daylong fest will showcase Chicago’s most promising young artists, with performances from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion and venues throughout the Loop. The fest finale will be a concert by Desiigner, 19, a rapidly rising Chicago hip-hop star.
DuBois has been dancing since she was 5, when her parents enrolled her in Alyo Children’s Dance. In the summer of 2016, she stepped into the classroom of Les Enfants Dance, an After School Matters program where Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago alum Shakeena President-Beckford helps teens find their power through dance. Through practice and performance, Les Enfants Dance also teaches young performers the rich historical and cultural context embedded within the choreography.
“I haven’t had a student like Aviwe in a long time,” said President-Beckford. “She pays attention to the smallest details — a finger, a toe, a single step. She does whatever is required to complete the statement. She pulls everything together to tell the story.”
“African dance is grounded in a spiritual sense,” said DuBois. “You learn about the meanings of each dance, and then you find the connections and the stories between the steps and their meanings.”
President-Beckford knows about telling stories through dance: In addition to her years with Muntu Dance, she collaborates often with Regina Perry-Carr, artistic director of the Nunufatima Dance company. Despite DuBois’ young age, President-Beckford brought the teenager into Nunufatima’s professional ranks.
“It’s amazing to watch Aviwe in a professional setting,” President-Beckford said. “She brings that professionalism back to the younger members of Les Enfants. She shows by example — that there’s a time to have fun and talk and there’s a time to get down to work.”
President-Beckford’s co-instructor at Les Enfants Dance is her mother, Carol Ika President. Their classes are deeply rooted in the Western African countries of Ghana and Senegal, and in the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where President-Beckford grew up. The familial bonds extend beyond the mother-daughter co-instructors. Like the other students of Les Enfants, DuBois refers to President-Beckford as “Mama Shakeena.” Ika President is “Mama Ika.”
“Les Enfants feels like family,” said DuBois.
That’s a feeling President-Beckford has intentionally cultivated.
“I want Les Enfants to be a home away from home. We want to make it a loving situation, not a place that’s all strict and competitive and no play at all. When I was growing up, it was hard sometimes because the richer kids taking classes got — how should I say this? — a different kind of love than the others. I didn’t have money, so I got treated differently.
“I always thought if I ever have a dance troupe, I’m not ever going to have people thinking, ‘Oh, I have dark skin so I’m not as pretty,’ or ‘I don’t have money, so I’m not as good.’ Everybody at Les Enfants gets the same love and attention,” President-Beckford said.
“The energy of Les Enfants keeps me coming back,” said DuBois. “Everyone is so open and kind. You really do feel like you’re at home.”
Away from class, DuBois has long been immersed in a home filled with music. “Dance hall, jazz, reggae — my mom would have them blasting while we were cleaning or cooking or whatever. We’d listen to CDs. I didn’t start listening to pop — radio stuff — until I was in junior high,” she said.
While DuBois loves dancing to hometown hero Chance the Rapper, she finds joy in the depths of African dance.
“There are lots of dances that are celebratory, so you have to move with that vibe. There are some that are about initiation, where you show a girl becoming a woman. There are many that are really fast, so you have to be able to catch the beat — and get the steps in.
“I get frustrated and irritated very quickly when I don’t get the steps immediately. Then I have to take a deep breath and a step back. And practice on my own.
“When you perform, you definitely get the energy of the audience,” she added. “Halfway through a dance you can get super tired. But the audience energy gets you through.”
At school, DuBois is enamored with the backstage intricacies of stage management and theater design. She played Lady Macbeth in a recent showcase, but she’s leaning more toward a career behind the scenes.
She’d also be an excellent teacher, said President-Beckford.
“Aviwe interned with me this summer and taught a class. It was weird, because I felt like I was watching myself up there. She had the students so engaged. She was so connected. I am so excited for that girl. She can do anything she puts her mind to.”
For information about the YAS! Fest, visit the event website.
This profile is part of a series underwritten by Allstate as part of its commitment to support young artists in Chicago and to empower the next generation of rising stars.