WHAT I DO IS MEDICINE: Julia Chigamba and the Healing Power of Dance

By Rob Taylor

January 1, 2016, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Chinyakare dancers moving
Photo by RJ Muna

I WAS WALKING ALONG a street not far from Downtown Oakland, looking for the studio where I was scheduled to meet Zimbabwean dancer and choreographer Julia Chigamba to discuss her work with her dance company, Chinyakare Ensemble for this article. I had missed the address the first time around, and starting back down the street I began to wonder if I had the correct information.

As if to answer my uncertainty, the unmistakable sound of someone plucking a mbira drifted across the cool autumn night. The mbira is an instrument constructed from a small wooden board to which an assortment of harmonized metal prongs has been attached. It is utilized by musicians in a number of African cultures, but is particularly associated with the musical traditions of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Played with the thumbs, it produces the most beautiful sound. I followed that sweet, multifaceted music into the dance studio, where I spoke with Julia and members of her community.

Julia Tsitsi Chigamba was born and raised in Zimbabwe, and comes from a long lineage of Shona musicians, dancers, and storytellers. From an early age she was enmeshed in a world where dance and music were an integral part of everyday life.

“I watched my mother and my father play music in ceremonies and rituals for other people in the community,” she says, explain-ing that when people were sick or families were having problems, music and dance were used to “call to the ancestors to find out why these things were happening and find the path that would lead to solutions.”

She came to the United States in 1999: first to Portland, Oregon for six months, and then returning permanently in 2000 to settle in Oakland joining the thriving community of both African expatriates and African-Americans who sustain different African dance and music forms. She began working with the group of dancers and musicians who became the Chinyakare Ensemble the following year.

Julia tells me that for the first few years in America she was reluctant to do extensive work with American dancers and was focused on doing solo shows and teaching here and there.” As she began working with American dancers, she began to become comfortable describing the body movement she was looking for in English.

“I grew up speaking Shona, and back home [in Zimbabwe] people made fun of you if you spoke broken English.” Coming to the United States, she was wary of teaching students for these reasons. However, “none of the students laughed at me when I talked, so I didn’t have to worry about that. I gained confidence around my English and my teach-ing from watching students dance and seeing how good they were becoming.”

Julia and two of her students began to perform as an ensemble, with Julia dancing solos, then watching her two students perform from off-stage. “I would watch them and sometimes I’d be in tears, because I’d be watching the girls, but I would be seeing my family.” This almost magical capacity of dance helped convince her that she was on the right path as a Zimbabwean dance choreographer in America: “the dance could make me see someone from home, when I was so far away. And I could make other people see and feel my home,” through her choreography.

In these early performances, Julia and her students would sometimes dance as a trio, and Julia would be overcome by a kind of spiritual ecstasy: “I would just go off and the dance just takes me someplace. These girls somehow knew to stay in step, to stay within the choreography. Then I’d come back from where I was and return to the choreography. They were able to speak that language, and understand that they didn’t have to panic and they could maintain the line.”

It’s appropriate that in the Shona language of Zimbabwe, Chinyakare translates to “we are many, all in the deep tradition of the arts of our ancestors.” The training that Julia has provided those girls and continues to provide to dancers and musicians is about building community. “I wanted to make music and dance for families, for communities, for peo-ple to come together and find out they could solve their problems.” Through the practice of Shona dance and music, these community members can reach back to their ancestors to find solutions to the challenges life presents. “Sometimes the family can’t find the solution on their own,” she explains, “but through the dance and music they can—it lights the eye that helps us to see and opens the ears that helps us to listen.”

Julia tells me, “I never knew it was going to be a full-time job, it was tied to my culture and my family.” For Julia, to be a dancer and to build a life around her cultural form was “the way to live life. It’s for helping people, and sometimes it’s hard for me to understand that I’m doing it as a job.

She continues: “I’m not here to just be here. What I do is medicine—it is a healing thing. I feel that what I’m doing here [in Oakland] is what I saw music and dance being used for at home [in Zimbabwe]. It is to unite the community and bring families together. It can give you peace of mind when you are having a hard time, or when you are sick.”

While I was transcribing the recording of our interview, I realized I only asked Julia two of my planned questions. Most of my questions were follow-ups to her very thorough response to “what made you decide to become a dancer?” and to her responses to my follow-ups. I did get to my second planned question, which was “did you ever want to do anything else?”

After a long pause of reflection, she answered with “no, but sometimes yes. Sometimes I just think that I don’t want to do this anymore, that it is too much.” It is exciting and meaningful work for Julia: “you meet different people, you meet different cultures.” But she explains that there are also the pain-ful realities of life that come out when one is creating art and “with what I do, most of the time I hear about people’s hard times and troubles. And it becomes personal for me. Sometimes it’s too much. It’s intense.”

But when she takes those hard experiences to create art, she explains that “I sing and dance and when I talk about it I feel free, I feel open, I feel happy. Then I ask myself what other things are going to make me happy? Life is not easy, but you have to find a way to have peace of mind, and I’ve found for me that music and dance is what keeps me strong. Dancing is a healing thing and when I hear people say that my dance touches their heart, it makes me feel happy, it makes me feel strong, because that person I helped has become strong.”

Julia Chigamba and members of the Chinyakare Ensemble will kick-off the 2016 Rotunda Dance Series with a performance at San Francisco’s City Hall on February 12, 2016. The performance will begin with a welcoming dance to serve as a call to the ancestors, and continue with a series of performances that will call for healing and celebration.

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.