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The History of Dance in Durham

Posted by Ashley Strahm on Sep 27, 2018 4:02:30 PM

You can find Durhamites dancing in Bull City streets, alleys, and gardens, but we're more frequently vibing to the beats pulsating within underground theaters and venues. You can't really blame us... the roots of dance course deep within the bones of the Bull City. Read on to see how Durham has and continues to move through history.

Estimated read time: 3 minutes

Destined to Dance

Mere years after the trains were still hauling loads of tobacco down the well-worn tracks of our booming entrepreneurial epicenter in the early 20th century, an entirely different enterprise was springing into existence: dance.

Heralded as “One of the nation’s most important institutions” by the New York Times and “The world’s greatest dance festival” by the New York Post, the American Dance Festival (ADF) has been bringing movers to the Bull City since 1977. For over 85 years, ADF has remained committed to serving the needs of dance, dancers, choreographers, and professionals in dance-related fields, and continues to offer performances, education, awards, community outreach and both domestic and international initiatives as a Durham performing arts staple.

A few years earlier in 1968, dancer and Raleigh native Chuck Davis began the Chuck Davis Dance Company in New York City. In 1970, his company was invited to perform in Durham – one such performance that would inspire a request for Davis' company to begin a permanent unit in Durham. Thus Durham's African American Dance Ensemble was formed, and has performed high-quality African and American dance for both local and international audiences since 1984.

Just two years before the African American Dance ensemble was formed, Duke Institute of the Arts began presenting artistic programming that would transform into Duke Performances in 2004. Duke Performances offers a robust season of nearly 100 world-class performances annually, making incredible use of unique Duke and Durham venues while presenting artists spanning multiple modes and genres of dance.


Get into the Groove

Durham has been dancing long before some of the venues where locals and visitors alike began to boogie down today – and that's good news. Venues like Pinhook, Motorco, The Durham Fruit and Produce Company, The Living Arts Collective and other gallery spaces near downtown transform into dance spaces that accommodate hundreds. From Brazilian day parties that celebrate Latinx heritage (with live samba instruction to boot!) and jazz fusion dance classes hosted by NC Underground Dance, Durham is not the place to sit on the sidelines. 

Cuban Revolution is nestled within the American Tobacco campus and is often host to maduros and lunch events by day, but clears its tables and chairs to make way for Latin dance nights weekly. Beyù Caffè often hosts parties for dancers of all ages in his space downtown. In both venues, food and drink are available until the last song ends. 


How Sweet It Is: Recreating The Sugar Shack 

A moment in time immortalized itself on canvas after an experience in Durham. Over a half-century later, we're still talking about it. Luckily for you, the chance to experience history is here.

On Friday, June 27, 1952, a 13-year-old Durham native Ernest Barnes, Jr. (1938–2009) walked a mile from his home in Durham’s “The Bottom” neighborhood to sneak into the Durham Armory, located downtown. There, he saw his first dance party. The scene he took in on the dance floor inspired him to create an iconic painting in the early 1970s “The Sugar Shack.” One of the most recognizable works of art created by an African American artist, the painting served as the cover art for Marvin Gaye’s 1976 “I Want You” album and appeared in the opening and closing credits of “Good Times” for three seasons – and it has inspired dancers and visual artists for generations.

You still have the chance to see the original work yourself! The painting is currently on exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History in downtown Raleigh. A series of community programs inspired by Ernie Barnes’ works, led by his estate, are also being produced throughout the state.

Want to learn more about where and when to boogie in Durham? Check our event calendar.

Topics: dance, performing arts, Events, family events

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