Chuck Davis, a dancer and choreographer widely regarded as America’s foremost master of African dance, died on Sunday at his home in Durham, N.C. He was 80.
His death was announced by the African American Dance Ensemble, which he founded in Durham in the early 1980s and directed until 2015. No cause was given.
Mr. Davis, who often said that he considered dance an agent of social change, performed, choreographed, taught and otherwise evangelized for the dances of Africa and the African diaspora for more than a half-century.
He was known both for his re-creations of traditional dances from throughout the African world and for his contemporary choreographed pieces that fused African traditions with modern dance.
Mr. Davis was most renowned as the founder and longtime artistic director of DanceAfrica, a festival held each Memorial Day weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Founded in 1977, the festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month.
DanceAfrica, a sprawling, multiday communal celebration, presents dancers and musicians from the United States, Africa and the diaspora, along with an outdoor bazaar selling African food and handicrafts. It has been reprised in cities throughout the United States.
“We need reminders of our history,” Mr. Davis, speaking of DanceAfrica, told The New York Times in 2001. “It adds meaning to our lives.”
Mr. Davis frequently traveled to Africa with his dancers to study dance and folkloric traditions, and lectured and gave master classes around the world. In North Carolina, he took his company to perform in schools, prisons and nursing homes, as well as on concert stages.
His “vast knowledge of dance and music from the African continent,” The Washington Post wrote in 2001, “has helped make African dance part of the American cultural landscape.”
Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
All this from a man who in his youth had planned to become a nurse — until he realized that his love of dancing might well pre-empt that career.
Charles Rudolph Davis was born on New Year’s Day, 1937, in Raleigh, N.C., the only child of Tony Davis, a laborer, and the former Ethel Watkins, a domestic.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Chuck attended all-black schools. In high school, he entered a Navy R.O.T.C. program, training as a medical corpsman.
In the late 1950s, after completing his naval service, he worked in a Washington-area hospital and planned to enroll in nursing school. At night, in Washington nightclubs, he began dancing to the strains of Afro-Cuban music.
Smitten, he enrolled in dance classes at a local studio; he later studied a range of dance traditions at Howard University.
Mr. Davis, who stood about 6-foot-5, felt compelled to compress his frame until he began working with the Trinidadian-American actor, dancer and choreographer Geoffrey Holder. Mr. Holder, who was 6-foot-6, taught him to exploit his long limbs in performance, something Mr. Davis did ever after.
Before long, Mr. Davis had forsaken his plans for a nursing career.
“I decided that dance was the prevention, and nursing was the cure,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. “And I’d rather be part of the prevention than the cure.”
During this period, he joined a small troupe, La Dalemo Trio, which performed in nightclubs around Washington.
“We had seven minutes and you name it, we did it,” Mr. Davis recalled in the 2001 article in The Post. “We wore skimpy little costumes and we danced our little tuchises off.”
In 1963, the day after he attended the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the Nigerian-born drummer Babatunde Olatunji saw Mr. Davis dance. He invited him to join his music and dance troupe in New York.
Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Moving to the city, Mr. Davis “got there on Tuesday, learned the five ballets on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and premiered on Saturday,” as he recalled in a 2012 interview with the Dance Heritage Coalition, a national dance-history organization.
In New York, he also studied with many titans of modern dance, including Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey and José Limón.
Performing with Mr. Olatunji’s troupe at the 1964 New York World’s Fair in Queens, Mr. Davis was galvanized by a dance troupe from Sierra Leone, also on the bill.
“I’d never seen such fireworks on the stage,” he later said.
He began to dream of traveling to Africa, studying its dance traditions and bringing them back to American audiences.
“African traditions are based on respect,” he told The Herald-Sun of Durham in 2006. “It’s my way of fighting racism.”
In the late 1960s, after a stint in the company of the Colombian-American modern dancer Eleo Pomare, Mr. Davis formed the Chuck Davis Dance Company in New York.
Reviewing a performance by the company in The Times in 1973, Anna Kisselgoff called it “witty and joyful,” writing that the troupe was “led superbly by Mr. Davis as both choreographer and dancer.”
Mr. Davis was moved to bring African dance traditions to an even wider audience, he said, after he happened to see an old Tarzan film on television.
“None of the ‘natives’ in the cast were Africans,” he told Dance magazine in 2004. “It was all just fantasy, and not a good one. ‘We are not ooga-booga,’ I thought, ‘and we must show that we aren’t.’”
A result was DanceAfrica, over which Mr. Davis, in flowing robes, presided each year like a traditional West African griot.
Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
The festival’s emphasis on community meant that audience members could rarely expect to sit passively. Some might be called onstage to take part the dancing; all, by festival’s end, would have joined Mr. Davis in reciting “Peace, love and respect for everybody,” the phrase that had long been his mantra.
“As long as you’re dancing together,” Mr. Davis used to say, “you have no time for hatred.”
Mr. Davis retired as DanceAfrica’s artistic director after the 2015 festival and was succeeded by Abdel R. Salaam. At his death, Mr. Davis was the festival’s artistic director emeritus. He leaves no immediate survivors.
His many laurels include two Bessie Awards, formally known as the New York Dance and Performance Awards and named for the dancer and choreographer Bessie Schonberg.
In 1999, the Dance Heritage Coalition named Mr. Davis one of the country’s hundred “irreplaceable dance treasures.” In 2016, the Brooklyn Academy of Music created the Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship, an annual award in his honor.
Mr. Davis had no illusions that the dances he presented on this side of the Atlantic were exact copies of the African originals, which he made plain in interviews.
“We try to show African dances accurately, but they’re theatrical presentations,” he told The Times in 2010. “Authenticity happens in the space and on the soil.”
He had learned an enduring lesson about authenticity long before, at the World’s Fair. After a Nigerian troupe was unable to appear there, Mr. Olatunji’s ensemble was slipped in as a covert replacement.
“We were told not to speak English,” Mr. Davis told The Raleigh News & Observer in 2015. “The songs we sang were in Yoruba, so we sang the songs to each other so no one could accuse us of not knowing the language.”
The jig was up, however, after a performance whose audience happened to include one Mrs. Hicks, Mr. Davis’s third-grade teacher from North Carolina.
“I came off the stage singing,” Mr. Davis recalled in the same interview. “And when I danced past Mrs. Hicks, she said: ‘Charles Davis, you’re not from Africa! You wait until I tell your mother!’”