Kanukai Chigamba dancing at AfroRooted's 2019 event (Gladys Liu)
In the 1970s, a dance grew out of Los Angeles’ underground LGBTQ disco clubs that would eventually lead to an international-cross cultural connection, a tight friendship, and an upcoming dance battle this month in Oakland.
On Feb. 15th, the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts hosts AfroRooted 2020, a celebration of dance styles rooted in African traditions. Along with performances, the night includes a cipher and a dance battle with a $400 cash prize for the winner.
None of it would be possible if it weren’t for two women’s common love of the dance style known as waacking.
When one of AfroRooted’s co-founders, Karla “Karlita” Flores, was chosen for an international trip as part of the State Department’s Next Level cultural program, she was sent to East Africa in order to use hip-hop as a form of building international relationships and cultural diplomacy.
Flores tells me that she landed in Tanzania, working as an instructor and performer for a few weeks. She extended her stay and eventually made her way to Uganda, where friends connected her to the local community—including a top dancer, Lilian Maxmillian Nabaggala.
“Waacking is the one thing we connected on,” says Flores of her friendship with Nabaggala. Flores, a breaker or B-girl by trade, was taught waacking by Soul Train dance legend Tyrone “The Bone” Proctor. Flores says Nabaggala, a world removed from the dance's Southern California origins, learned it by watching videos online. And while healing from an injury, Nabaggala found solace in the arm-and-hand focused movements.
"It's a dance form a lot of women gravitate towards, because it's all about celebrating your femininity," Flores says.
Nabaggala and Flores started working together, making videos and leading classes. They were both well-versed in other forms of dance, from hip-hop and house to Latin, and during that time period Flores’ dancing palette expanded, as Nabaggala introduced Flores to traditional dances.
“We noticed similarities between the freestyle world, or the urban dance world, and traditional movements,” says Flores. “And that was the seed being planted for what is now AfroRooted.”
Flores says there’s a clear connection between the culture on this continent and the motherland. But the downside to culture spreading around the world is that it sometimes becomes watered down. Flores notes, “As hip-hop has become global, there’s been a detachment from the history of these dances.”
That's why last year, AfroRooted threw their first event at MVMNT Studios in Berkeley, which proved to be a huge success. This year, they're gearing up for part two.
That includes teaming up with dance scholar Latanya D. Tigner, who is in residency at the Malonga Casquelourd Center. The event will be hosted by emcee MADLines. And Nabaggala herself is making the long journey from East Africa to the East Bay to be a part of the action.
The main focus of the evening is a series of two-on-two battles, with cash prizes for the first and second place winners. Even more so, the event is about bridging dance communities and showing the African influence in the movements. This should be especially evident in the final round of the battle, as the dancers compete while West African drummers play.
Flores notes that many of these dances were born of "oppressive situations and really challenging times.” It's all about knowing your history, and tracing it back further than hip-hop, according to Flores.
"There's blueprints to street dances that you can trace back to Africa," she says. "That's what AfroRooted is about."
AfroRooted's Dance Battle Vol. 2 takes place Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland. Details here.
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