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When the spirit moves: Dancing for God and Gaga

Muntu Dance "baby" Asiel Hardison grows up.

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When Asiel Hardison moved to Los Angeles in 2004—bent on actually making a living as a dancer—he had red dreads. At auditions, he says, "I was wearing my African jewelry, bangles, earrings. I had a bone in my ear, shells in my hair. I was so like: 'I'm African! It's my culture! Take me, take me, take me!' In LA, you hear from casting directors, 'Give me you. Show me something different.' I didn't know how to do that any other way. But I learned I had to not be so in-your-face with it, not so specific—show I could be a blank canvas."

Hardison says the level of dance work in LA is "like no other in any city in the world. And my creative being craves the lights, TV, the traveling." He lost the locks and modified his style at auditions. Six months after he arrived in the city, word of mouth got him his first big gig: choreographing an opening Afro-Cuban number for a Gloria Estefan tour. In 2008, Hardison made it onto Lady Gaga's "Fame" tour and has danced with her ever since. But in those early days he was told, "No, no, no, no," he says. "I was too skinny, too black, too ethnic. I didn't even know I was a tall person when I moved to LA!"

Hardison, 30, attributes that unaccountable self-perception—he's six foot four—to the way he grew up, artistically and personally, in the family of Chicago's Muntu Dance Theatre, an African and African-American music and dance organization founded in 1972. "When Muntu puts people in positions," Hardison says, "it's about the talent. It's not about the height or the look—that stuff's not at the forefront."

Hardison wasn't happy last February when Lady Gaga suffered a hip injury that cut short the "Born This Way" tour. But there was a silver lining. When he called Amaniyea Payne, Muntu's artistic director for 25 years, she told him, "Baby, just come on with your workout clothes and get on this floor." So a few months ago the Chicago native came home to choreograph his first-ever work for Muntu, part of its "Rhythm Keepers and Global Griots" joint concert with Home Tone Music & Arts Foundation.

Born and raised in Beverly, Hardison says his South Shore grandmother, Gloria T. Wells, is the reason he's a dancer: "Thank God to Granny! She was a dancer, model, journalist, she had a radio show. She introduced me to African-American culture." She got him acquainted with the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, where he went to summer camp, then continued with theater classes and the occasional play. Hardison got his first glimpse of African dance and drumming in middle school, at an Alyo Children's Dance Theatre concert—and "that really ignited fire," he says. Alyo artistic director Kimosha Murphy took him to his first Muntu show, "Fat Tuesday and All That Jazz," which he saw as the ultimate expression of black theater.

Hardison took classes and performed with Muntu until, at his father's insistence, he started college, studying dance at the University of Memphis. But he quit a few weeks afterward, when 9/11 hit and it seemed the end of the world was nigh, to devote himself to finding a job in dance. A friend let him know that the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team was looking for a dancer; he did a rehearsal and got on the squad.

Asiel Hardison (second from left) rehearsing with Muntu dancers at First Baptist Church - JIM NEWBERRY
  • Jim Newberry
  • Asiel Hardison (second from left) rehearsing with Muntu dancers at First Baptist Church

That connection led to a gig with the WNBA's Miami Sol. In Miami, Hardison met LA dancers working on a movie ("we kicked it, freestyling in clubs") who encouraged him to try his hand in LA. But before he moved there, he came back to Chicago for a few months. "I needed some more nurturing, some more hugs, a little push. Over the years, I've tended to come home and catch my breath," he says. Though dancing for Lady Gaga is "like family—it's so parallel to what I receive at Muntu, it's about the talent and the gift and how you use it," he wants to keep "going from home to home, be in both places."

When I ask whether he'll also be dancing in Muntu's upcoming show, Hardison laughs and high-fives Payne. "Praise His name!" he says. "All the sections, I'm gonna be up on that stage, smiling and sharing my gift and what was taught to me. I'm so excited to be alongside these angels again."

In his Twitter profile, Hardison calls himself a "dancer for GOD & @ladygaga." But, he says, "I'm not a religious person, though I'm a very spiritual person. I do have a religion that's in the forefront for me: the Lucumi tradition from the Yoruba of Nigeria [the progenitor of Cuban Santeria]. That's something I got into junior year in high school—that moment when you're trying to find yourself, and the parents are getting divorced, and you just need something that lets you know there's still a god. I was initiated as a priest my senior year—I wore all white for a year, dancing onstage with Muntu in my all white. They respected the traditions I had to abide by. With Muntu, we didn't just learn these dances and go out onstage. I learned what the dance meant, why it was done. When I was exposed to Lucumi, it made sense."

Talking about his piece for "Rhythm Keepers," Urbanization, Hardison says, "I don't want to call it hip-hop. I feel our generation is so much more than that. Hip-hop was the 80s, it was MC Hammer. We're more urban pop, soul, R&B. It's everything we've learned from previous generations. We need to tell our story right now, without the older members holding our hands." (Also, Payne told him from the beginning: "Us old folks are not gonna be in it!")

So Urbanization is set on Muntu's younger members—Hardison's old friends, the people he grew up with.

"When I go to rehearsal, I get possessed by the piece, by our generation's spirit," Hardison says. "I'm in such a zone! Footworking and popping and locking—it's so similar to African dance. There's this one section for the guys, and I'm like, 'This could be behind Usher right now!' It's got this urban pop element and yet it's ancient. And that's a testament to that spirit being kept alive. My generation needs to have a voice, bringing back our tradition directly from Africans."

When Lady Gaga suffered a hip injury, Hardison (center, with dancers) came home to choreograph his first-ever work for Muntu. - JIM NEWBERRY
  • Jim Newberry
  • When Lady Gaga suffered a hip injury, Hardison (center, with dancers) came home to choreograph his first-ever work for Muntu.

Dance in general is an intimate, physical culture. Hugging runs rampant. At rehearsals and in the wings, everybody strips and dresses side by side. There's no way to pass along tradition except through the body.

African dance is even more familial. Someone might bring in a Senegalese cousin to drum. People's kids come to class, where everybody watches out for the little girl careening across the room or admires the two-foot-tall budding drummer. Community starts in the classroom or studio and extends as far as Africa.

Family and community, including the church (consider the African-American phenomenon of praise dance), incubate dance more than schools. As artistic director Payne puts it, "We didn't go to school to learn how to swing dance. Instead, my uncle would say, 'Come on, let's do this dance.' Even though we're onstage, we must not forget the role played by community. Urban, swing, New Orleans second-line, African, Latin—it's social dancing."

I got schooled in the ways of African dance while sitting around a table with Payne, Hardison, and Home Tone artistic director Lucius Bell in a room on the sparsely furnished first floor of the Grand Crossing two-flat Muntu now occupies—a step down from the home the company envisioned in 2003. Those plans were scrapped, and mourned, beginning in late 2010, when funding fell apart. But the conversation around this table is robust and hopeful. In round, rolling preacher's tones, Bell tells me, "African music has transformed into some particular style in every region of the world. In America, it's migrated into Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, New Orleans blues, and European classical music by black composers." A jazz musician, 30-year music teacher at Francis W. Parker School, and now head of the year-old international arts exchange program Home Tone, Bell wrote the narration for Urbanization; storyteller Oba William King delivers it.

"The African drum is the fulcrum, the center, and the foundation for all of the styles," Bell says. Both Home Tone—made up of piano, bass, trap drums, guitar, horn section, and vocals—and Muntu's drummers, a heart-rattling group headed by Muntu founding member Babu Atiba, play in the upcoming show. But African drumming is the constant, says Bell, running "throughout the classical music, the spirituals, the blues, jazz, hip-hop—which will include rap—the bebop for the swing dance, the scat. I'll be playing piano and singing. Probably, depending on who don't show up, right?"

Muntu and Home Tone won't be working together in the same space until the week of "Rhythm Keepers," an approach that seems alarmingly casual to me. But when I say I'd be terrified, all three look at me askance.

Bell's response: "The first time we did this, at six, we were terrified too. But we been doing this so long, it's just the way we work."

"It's what we do," says Hardison. "With Lady Gaga, when we put shows together, it changes the day of. For the New Year's Eve show, we learned that choreography, that song, the day of. It's second nature to us."

Lucius Bell, Amaniyea Payne, Asiel Hardison - JIM NEWBERRY
  • Jim Newberry
  • Lucius Bell, Amaniyea Payne, Asiel Hardison

How do the dancers rehearse without the actual music Home Tone will play? Hardison rehearses to recorded tracks, he says, with a "soulful, R&B type of rhythm" to get the "vibes" he wants from his dancers. Payne says that putting everything together is an organic process. "We're dealing with styles, rhythms, from a traditional standpoint. A cha-cha is a cha-cha, a mambo is a mambo. And the trust thing is there: knowing we're all specialists in our own fields, knowing that when we do come together, it won't be hard to connect it."

"You can read each other's minds because you come from the same experience," says Bell. "What I know about Amaniyea and the dancers is just instinctive. And when you start playing out your instincts, putting things together, it's like, 'Yeaaaah, I know what you mean.' You know on a level of cultural memory. That's part of the African and African-American community. One principle of African music is collectivism—everyone joins in. Another is improvisation. We're not afraid to make it up—it's no big deal. You don't know where it's gonna be, but you know where it comes from."

"You know the process," says Hardison. "But the final product, that's the magic."

Last summer, Bell became the first Home Tone ambassador to Ghana (Muntu has gone twice). He talked there to families, educators, and other community members about the values of traditional African life. "And they told me, 'Here's how we were raised, here's what we learned, here's what part music and arts play in our lives.' Now we want to infuse the principles of traditional African life into the music and arts taught in the schools here."

Muntu president Joan Gray, who started with the company as a dancer in 1977 and became an administrator in 1986, articulates a similar vision for transforming African-American communities—and, in the process, Muntu. "We have survived for 41 years," she says. "But in the last year we've been talking about the need to challenge some of the assumptions we've made in the past."

Muntu has long taught and performed African music and dance in the schools and parks of Chicago's underserved neighborhoods. "But lately," Gray says, "we've been asking ourselves, 'Is there a program that might address what we feel are the underlying root causes of dysfunction or violence in some of our communities?' Now it's my view, and Amaniyea's, that dysfunction is not the only story—but it's the one that's dominant in the media now. The positive things, the working things, don't get reported on with the same consistency.

"When the Africans were brought here and enslaved, that was one thing. But the future generations, their children and their children's children, were born into slavery. And the further away they got from those original Africans, and the more oppressive the slave environment became, it was hard to hold onto their African values. All they knew about themselves was that they were less than human and had no real value except for the physical work they could do. That's some intense psychological damage.

"Labels have power," says Gray. They're also a means of wielding power. "You never hear people say, 'Can you tell me what white dance is?' We're the ones constantly trying to explain black dance. I'm through with that. I want people to resonate with the work, and however that gets facilitated for you is a personal thing."

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