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Durham Dance: Past and Present

Estimated Read Time:
4 minutes

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.

Posted By Ashley Strahm on Sep 27, 2018

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, as well as what's in store at the 2019 American Dance Festival.

Destined to Dance

Years after trains were hauling loads of tobacco down the well-worn tracks of our booming entrepreneurial epicenter in the early 20th century, a 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. At various points in the year, some local restaurants often hosts parties for dancers of all ages throughout Durham. Check our calendar to find places to groove 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.

The 2019 ADF Preview

This year, The American Dance Festival takes place from June 13 to July 20 this year, and will, of course, be host to a collection of exceptional programming. This season is dedicated to Paul Taylor, and will include works from both domestic and internationally renowned modern dance companies. Tickets go on sale on Tuesday, April 30 at 11:00 a.m.

The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble will perform a dynamic body of works inspired by the African American experience and rooted in ethnic and modern dance traditions worldwide. Expect to be wowed by both on-stage performances and a post-performance discussion on Tuesday, July 2. Then there's Eiko Otake, who will offer an interdisciplinary, inter-generational work that interweaves various duets with an eclectic mix of collaborators, including Durham’s celebrated painter Beverly McIver. The LA Times calls performances by the Cuban Malpaso Dance Company “…a pinch-me moment, one of those times when you catch an artistic dawning…”

Watch the Mark Morris Dance Group (June 19-20), Dorrace Dance (June 21-23), and repeat fan favorite, Pilobolus (July 4-6) for family-friendly shows, as well as Culture Mill (June 25-26) and A.I.M. by Kyla Abraham (July 16-18) if you're new to dance. Are you an experienced dance connoisseur? Attend performances by the Paul Taylor Dance Company (June 27-29) and honor the recent passing of Paul Taylor with special events before and after the concerts. Or, attend Footprints (July 19-20) to watch some of the most talented, young dance professionals perform classic works!

There's much, much more, including a Children’s Saturday Matinee series, which presents performances by three acclaimed professional dance companies. These one-hour performances are specially curated to ignite and inspire the imaginations of children, followed by a free party in the theater lobby, complete with live music, face-painting, snacks, and additional activities. These performances are perfect for those just dipping their toes into the dance scene, too — they offer abbreviated versions of longer performances so viewers can get a taste of everything. Millennial dance fans are also encouraged to utilize ADF Go, which allows people aged 18-30 to buy discounted $12 tickets to many performances.

Tours of the ADF school are available as free and open to the public at appointed times, as well as ADF’s Movies by Movers, which will screen films in their bi-annual festival dedicated to the celebration of the conversation between the body and the camera.

What's more, here's the schedule for American Dance Festival's pop up performances, all of which will take place in unexpected places in and around Durham — after all, all the world's a stage!


American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters are available upon request. Buy tickets here.

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

About the Author

Ashley Strahm - Content and Automation Manager
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Teller of stories. Eater of food. Lover of Durham. Find me pedaling swiftly, clad in Birkenstocks, schnoodle in tow. We're not in Jersey anymore.