Ayodele Drum and Dance puts fresh steps into traditional footprints

Long before “black joy” became a hashtag, Ayodele Drum and Dance was cultivating a sisterhood of joyfulness.

“I came to Chicago to dance with Muntu Dance Theatre from New York,” recalls T. Ayo Alston, the company’s vibrant executive and artistic director, composer and choreographer. “After rehearsals, the drummers and dancers would get together at my place or at 63rd Street Beach and drum, dance and kick it. It was never my intention to start a dance company, I wanted to spread love by sharing the different rhythms and dances I learned from my teachers growing up in New York.”

This organic exchange of knowledge eventually led to the official start of the dance company Ayodele (a Yoruba word translating to “joy in the home”), now in its 14th season. It conducts a majority of its programming at Sherman Park in the South Side Back of the Yards neighborhood.

The group’s commitment to studying the complexity of historical and contemporary Africa and its diaspora is reflected in its fluency in Guinean, Senegalese and Malian polyrhythms and movements. But don’t be surprised if you attend a concert or class and discover that the sisterhood’s knowledge does not end with West Africa: In the Ayodele village, you might also be exposed to Afro-Brazilian samba, capoeira, hip-hop and the multitude of other forms that have been influenced by West African dance.

Yet perhaps Ayodele’s most compelling feature is its willingness to experiment, innovate and surrender to imagination. Much of the freedom evident in their performances traces back to Alston’s foundational studies with longtime mentor Youssouf Koumbassa, who encouraged her to incorporate her own experiences into traditional dances.

“He encouraged me to make up my own steps while expanding and beautifying the steps I learned,” says Alston. 

This productive tension between freedom and tradition has resonated with audiences. We often think of traditional African dance companies as keeping alive a sacred culture. Against that expectation, Ayodele reminds audiences that its performers are also innovators.

“How we present West African dance is different. We write our own stories and present all of the aspects of the African diaspora, both good and bad,” says Alston. “We are not looking at African dance as a monolith or shuck-and-jive. We want the artists and audience to feel past the surface. We are able to achieve this level of honesty in our work by constantly growing, critiquing, adjusting, making mistakes and being encouraged to be our best vulnerable selves.”

Aside from creating joy, Ayodele Drum and Dance is deeply committed to welcoming and affirming those who often face rejection.

“After experiencing a lot of rejection growing up, I knew I wasn’t the only one with that narrative,” says Alston. “I lost my mother at 15, and African dance saved me. I wanted to create a space for queer performers, for those struggling with addiction and mental health, single mothers, and really cultivate a village that mentors and highlights women.”

The inclusivity embraced by Ayodele’s truly intergenerational village is ingrained into its administration as much as its spirit. Their strength is in being not just a dance company but a family. Like most African villages, “We receive our nourishment from the women and the children,” explains Ayo.

Every Ayodele queen has the opportunity to bring her unique skills and aptitudes in ways that contribute to the whole, whether that’s finance manager Patrice Gaiters supplying ginger and bissap after a class; business manager and founding member Mashaune Hardy capturing joy across a classroom with her camera; or artistic director Imania Fatima Detry teaching intricate Malinke feet patterns to students. The integration of all parts of one’s experience — mind and body, past and present, child and elder — is encouraged.

Like many artistic companies, the pandemic has taken a toll on Ayodele’s village. The departure of many principal dancers has left the company in a rebuilding phase, but the Ayodele queens are maintaining their buoyancy by building their relationships outside of rehearsal, strengthening their scholarship of West African dance and being keepers of joy. Although some things may change — like the personnel or the frequency of their concerts — the company’s essence remains a desire to hold up women and children so they can nourish our communities and contribute to the dynamic continuum of African dance.

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