Shaping Cultural Identity with the Najwa Dance Corps

  In 1977, my two sisters and I became founding members of Najwa Dance Corps (NDC) in Chicago. We were so excited to be a part of something new that carried forward for future generations African American culture through dance, engaging new audiences, as well as teaching dance on Chicago’s West Side. Najwa I and her dance partner, the late Julian Swain, in whose company I also performed, were instrumental in shaping my cultural identity.

Over the holidays, I had time to reflect on this important juncture of my life, which forged my cultural development, and is a part of who I am and the work I do today. During a recent visit to Chicago, I spoke with the three leaders of the dance company—Najwa I, Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus; Sheila Walker-Wilkins, Executive Director, and Andrea (Nawii) Vinson, current Artistic Director.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work with Najwa Dance Corps?

 Sheila Walker-Wilkins: In 1977, following a workshop at the Better Boys Foundation, a group of dancers approached Najwa I and asked if she would continue to teach them dance after her projects ended. This group, of which I was a part, wanted the opportunity to learn dance styles and techniques that were rarely performed in the United States in 1977.

 Najwa I: During that workshop, I was talking to the dancers about my experiences traveling with different showcases. The dancers were excited and wanted to experience some of that. They wanted to form a company that would provide them the opportunity to travel and perform. At the time, I was still performing myself and teaching, and I didn’t have the time to establish a new company. They decided to start the company anyway, volunteering to help. They gave themselves a year to prepare.

 Sheila: In April 1978, our group was asked to perform for the 50th Year Celebration Concert with the renowned Count Basie and Billy Eckstine for a tribute to the legendary Red Saunders at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. We chose this as the opportunity for our inaugural concert and to publicly establish ourselves as a professional dance company. By the end of that year, NAJWA Dance Corps officially announced its intention to operate as a not-for-profit, performing arts organization.

Donna: What was it like in Chicago when Najwa Dance Corps first began?

 Najwa I: We were all excited about the African-American experience in our country, coming out of the 1960’s civil rights movement. People wanted to learn about our heritage; about our dance heritage. The social climate was stern and cold, and what we were doing was not necessarily fully welcomed. But we believed in our thing and what we were doing. We fought to retain our cultural identity and we were able to endure. Today, that has changed, and I feel we have a place at the table.

The late Julian Swain, who was a multi-talented performer, choreographer, and had his own African dance company in Chicago, was a great teacher and supporter of our efforts. He taught me important elements of African dance, such as line, and what to look for. Julian also made sure everyone knew they were important; that Black people were important, and we knew the importance of holding on to our dance history.

 Donna: Were there any initial challenges?

 Andrea (Nawii) Vinson: I was already a part of the African dance community when I joined NDC. But I wanted to be an artist who was not limited to one form of dance. With NDC, I could perform other styles that were reflective of our heritage. Some people may consider me to be a rebel against the culture of African dance, but I believe you have to do what you believe in. We also were called the “girly-girls” because we wore makeup when performing African dance. A couple of other African dance companies did not wear makeup. But as we grew, we understood it to be a necessity for the show.

 Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in the community?

 Sheila: For more than 35 years, NDC has been part of the unique cultural footprint of Chicago’s West Side, which includes the communities of Austin, Lawndale, Garfield Park, and West Haven. These communities have limited access to financial resources, economic opportunity, and little to no access to cultural and artistic activities, like performance and dance.

 Andrea: We have a partnership with the Chicago Park District on the West Side and offer free classes and studio classes. We’ve also seen an impact with our offerings of different dance genres, such as hip hop and African. I have found through my daily contact with kids on the west side that dance is very popular and they want to get to know more about NDC, and we are open to sharing.

In our classes, in addition to teaching dance, I include a lot more, such as self-confidence and endurance—important life skills are taught through dance. I see the positive impact that has on adults and youth. When I find that someone is truly interested in dance, I can help them more directly. That’s why performance is important, it builds character and pride.

 Najwa I: We remain one of the oldest arts groups still surviving on the west side. We were so needed during the time we started; we still are. I also knew that if we left, there would be no other dance for the community. And the same exists today. We have remained on the west side to teach dance, as well as to foster social, cultural and artistic awareness.

 Donna: How did you approach thinking about your work? What were the influences?

 Najwa I: After we got the company started, the dancers in the company kept me going and pushed me. I wanted to help them as much as they were helping me. At the same time, I was trying to educate people about our African-American dance heritage. During that time, people were familiar with ballet and tap. But we wanted to show our audiences and help them understand the depth of our cultural legacy—we developed performances of other dance styles, such as jazz, tap and swing, which also were reflective of our African-American culture. We worked hard at training and learning techniques from different periods of our history within those genres of dance performance.

 Andrea: The versatile and diverse dance styles were a strong attraction. It also was a wonderful feeling for us knowing we did all these things. We created something unique and beautiful. We were so proud of our African heritage. We took trips to Africa and New York. We also brought in dancers and choreographers to teach us authentic African dance movements and styles.

 Donna: What were the challenges and how were they addressed?

Najwa I: Challenges? Always money. The biggest thing was being able to have money to do what we needed to do. I personally sacrificed to work with the dancers, and many of the dancers made personal sacrifices in order to perform with NDC. Somehow, we managed to do it—we were able to find the money for costumes and to bring in teaching artists and choreographers to help train our dancers.

In the beginning, everyone was in the same place, growing together. I was the only one with professional dance and performing experience, and I knew it was going to take all of me to get us where we all knew we wanted and needed to be. If I had had a staff and money, I could have pulled in more expertise from the field—other teachers and choreographers. So we taught ourselves how to write grants; as a matter of fact we had to teach ourselves all about running a dance company. There’s a big difference going from a show, to forming a business, building commercial success and holding concerts. Learning is life-long. If we are to last, our dancers will continuously need training and have to be groomed for performing on the stage.

 Andrea: I am struggling now with dancers who are different; a new breed. I find I have to dig deeper to help instill in them the passion and the drive to dance; to help them develop the heart of a dancer. That really is my primary focus today.

I also see that social media has a significant impact on our community, and it’s very important to use it to promote our performances. We have a solid, culturally-relevant product and we can improve how we market ourselves based on the way people currently access information.

 Sheila: We needed to develop a Board of Directors with the passion for dance, which we have succeeded in doing. We also still need a signature facility, where we’re able to put down roots, build a stronger community base, and promote our artistic endeavors. Funding remains an ongoing challenge.

Donna: What are you most proud of?

 Sheila: That we work every day to carry out our mission to operate a professional dance company devoted to the performance, production and preservation of dance styles and techniques reflective of the African-American dance heritage and experience. We offer and provide high quality arts programming, and we make art accessible to audiences of all ages and cultural backgrounds

 Andrea:  That we are still here after all these years, true to our product. The whole reason I joined the company was to not do one type of dance. I love the variety; being proficient in different dance styles is wonderful.

Najwa I: That the company can go on. So many arts organizations stop when the leader goes away. I am so proud to have Sheila, Andrea and Malika Moore (Artistic Director, Najwa Junior Corps, and former company member) to move forward and step up. They have worked hard to keep things going. When I ran the company, I was there more than full-time—six days per week, from 10am-10pm. I see them stepping up and filling my shoes, getting everything done that I tried to do. To me, that is wonderful! They know what it takes and they’re trying to make it work. The company will go on, whether I am around or not. My hard work and sacrifice was not in vain!

 Donna: What is the future for you in your community arts collaborations?

 Andrea: The community I want to engage is the west side of Chicago, that is my target community. Through our work at the park district, it is my intent that we can help strengthen, engage, and help youth and adults have pride in their community. I want to reach out all over the city and bring people to the west side.

 Najwa: I am working with the Board as the Artistic Director Emeritus. My primary goal is help locate a facility where NDC can have a nice performance space. We performed at the Malcom X Community College theater for 25 years. But now, due to reconstruction, the theater is no longer there.

 Andrea: We need a new, permanent home, where we can offer classes, produce and offer performances, and people can come from all over the city.  We will still continue to go throughout Chicago to offer our programs. We want the community to know we are here, and they can come to us for an arts experience.

 Sheila: In the interim, we will continue to engage audiences and offer high quality arts programming. Our current season includes 25 performances, which will be presented in a range of venues throughout Chicago and the Midwest. Our schedule can be found on our website.

 Donna: I am proud of this Company and grateful for the precious time I had learning to dance, developing my cultural identity, and gaining an understanding of what it takes to run an arts organization. Thank you, Najwa Dance Corps, for your vision and tenacity. It’s not easy running a dance company today, let alone back in the 1970’s. But with strong leadership, clear vision, and a solid artistic product, dance will continue to carve out its place in our community. My goal is to continue to identify financial resources so that these companies cannot just survive, but thrive and soar!