SPEAK: Reaching Further

By Deborah Vaughan


I was first introduced to Della Davidson’s work when she was a performer and choreographer with the San Francisco Moving Company (1983-86). Whenever viewing her work I was struck by the powerful imagery, truthful storytelling, the boldness of movement, and the way her dancers conveyed the message of the choreography. I also marveled at and appreciated her open mindedness, care and attention to detail—the sense of freedom that was so much a part of her work. Among her many standout pieces I especially remember Tongues and Shrine for their social/ spiritual integrity and breathtaking theatricality. The latter was a piece she choreographed to honor and celebrate dancer Tracy Rhoades. Della always approached her layered choreography with an undaunted bravery that revealed the complexity, texture, and variability of life and living.

The power of her work encouraged and inspired me. Energized by it, I continued to listen to my own voice and bring my truths to the stage in spite of persistent questioning and criticism: how and why would an African American dance company present work in multiple genres? Why use spoken word? Why incorporate storytelling? Just do your traditional dances… Do not explore…Don’t be so serious about a expressing a world view…Simply shake, just jump, stump, and smile. Entertain only! so we can be thrilled and titillated but not really think about culture/community.

Most of Dimensions Dance Theater’s work explores dance/music forms and fusions from throughout the African Diaspora. Long ago I understood that there was so much to explore, and that there were many barriers to overcome and dance past.

There were many Bay Area artists that were instrumental in my unleashing of what I wanted to bring to the stage. Bay Area pioneers like Ruth Beckford, Frank Shawl, Victor Anderson, Marian Van Tuyl, Eleanor Lauer, and Ed Mock were all important mentors and teachers that played a significant role in my emerging years. They pushed me to explore and find the freedom to go beyond what was expected in the world of Black Dance.

In the early 1970s co-founders Elendar Barnes, Shirley Brown and I realized it was time to bring our dance experiences and point of view from the African Diaspora to the main stage. We blended styles and presented a mixed dance vocabulary with live music, spoken word, and numerous collaborators. Traditional ethnic dance forms at that time got little recognition, and sadly that remains true today. The idea of exploring tradition was not popular then; moreover critics did not have much insight or understanding of African dance let alone a unique and relevant African American dance perspective. I wanted to break that barrier and not be stereotyped or put into a box. My travels throughout West and Central Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Asia and the United States helped me realize I did not need permission from the mainstream dance world to validate or approve my vision. My motto became “Just do the work!” I gave myself permission to collaborate with dancers and other artists, firm in the knowledge that we had a wealth of enduring stories, dances and traditions to investigate and present. Through the company’s collaborations I explore how the African Diaspora spans and reverberates throughout the world and speaks to the human condition. Fortunately, the world of dance has changed, become more open, is more diverse, and now more interested in artists of color. Through it all Dimensions has become widely recognized for its collaborations, presentation of both traditional dances and contemporary choreography drawn from African, Jazz, and Modern dance idioms., and youth programs to give a voice and platform for the next generation of artists.

Dimensions Dance Theater’s mission is to create, perform and teach dance that reflects the lives and historical/cultural experiences of the African diaspora. We are community-based and our overarching goal is to transmit and provide the transformative power of the arts through the medium of dance.

Today our neighborhoods, communities and the world are in an unpredictable state of flux. As we navigate through these challenges I believe—now more than ever— that art is urgent and a life line to many. Art penetrates the mind, heart, and soul, and touches the essence of humanity. I say to all artists of every genre that we have always been thinkers and these times require that we continue to do our work. Create, perform, and present in every medium. Our voices provoke, anger, sadden, and bring joy. We must be fearless, and bold. Dance, speak, act, write, sing. Listen to your inner voice, create, perform, present and forge another way. Support local artists. Know that the power of art and creativity is unstoppable!

What if Della was here now? How would she speak to these times? What would she be creating? I am sure she would encourage us to move forward, to steer, push the envelope, reach further, etching our truths into this landscape. She has certainly left her mark. She is a force that continues to inspire of us.

Thank you Della Davidson!

DEBORAH VAUGHAN is the 2017 recipient of the Della Davidson Prize, which honors the life and work of choreographer and teacher Della Davidson, by supporting innovative dance and dance/theater artists. Vaughan will be awarded the Prize at the Bay Area Dance Week kick-off on Friday, April 21 at noon at San Francisco City Hall.