On a late Wednesday evening, in a studio two stories above a bustling Fulton Street , dancers pound out rhythms of the African Diaspora on hardwood floors. From down below, one can look up into a large window and see colorful fabrics and flailing arms painting vibrant pictures of history.
All of this movement is coming from Cumbe: Center for African and Diaspora Dance, a space in downtown Brooklyn that is devoted to teaching and preserving dance of the African Diaspora. In a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, Cumbe is one among many dance centers and companies pushing cultures of African descent—and it hopes to stay just where it is.
Started in January 2012, by founders Dominique Bravo, Pat Hall, and Jimena Martinez, the center was created to house a space that honors the rich dance traditions of the African Diaspora. Teachers lead classes rooted in movements and rhythms from Guinea, Haiti, Brazil, Columbia, Senegal, Cuba, and other cultures that allow students to gain both educational and cultural experiences.
Kendra Ross, a dancer and staff member at Cumbe, says, “Cumbe’s mission is to become a hub specifically for African dance of the Diaspora through workshops and classes, to highlight and promote the power in such rich cultures.”
During an evening class, feet of all different colors and shades can be seen moving to Afro-Brazilian beats through the square plexi-glass windows in one of the studios. Ross points out that despite the classes taught by the “high quality teachers,” Cumbe is a judgment-free zone and attended by people of all different levels.
Just as the intensity of this class picks up with the sound of affirming yelps and shouts, a group of women pour out of the Afro-Haitian class next door—drenched in sweat, full of smiles and high in spirits. The sense of community that is prevalent in cultures of the Diaspora has been re-created in this space, with the help of a mutual experience of dance.
“For our adult classes, all of our teachers are really warm and welcoming and the majority of our classes are open range and in that it really gives people a sense of empowerment,” says Ross. “You know as the person taking the class where you can get to because of that openness.”
Cumbe also does not forget about its blossoming artists. It offers a children’s Diaspora class, led by Jamie Philbert. Adia Tamar Whitaker, owner of dance company Ase Dance Theatre Collective, and a master dance artist, takes classes at Cumbe along with her toddler daughter. Whitaker rubs her rounded belly, which is very obviously full of life, and says, “My two-year-old daughter is a passionate young diva in these Brooklyn streets so we want to make sure that she has the guidance to use her powers for good.”
Jamie Philbert was born in Trinidad and was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Having spent time working at Alvin Ailey, Philbert has been a dance teacher for over 21 years, and in all of her classes she approaches dance of the African Diaspora with a holistic spirituality. “All of my classes are based in empowerment teaching and also learning through dance that movement is a part of living,” she explains.
Philbert teaches youth from toddlers to teenagers all around Brooklyn, and she lays down a foundation of self-awareness, discipline, and independence in each class level. Whitaker says her daughter internalizes the affirmations that she learns in class. At the end of class, the children proclaim, “I am beautiful, I am strong, I am brave because I am love. I am kind, I am smart, I am good, I am powerful, I am thankful, I am focused.”
Philbert stresses the power that lies in the phrase, “I am,” which reinforces a verbal and internal lesson about agency, along with both the freedom and control learned through dance. She also includes affirming activities with her older students that allow them to use movement to illustrate situations that they are coping with outside of the classroom. Philbert is a firm believer in constantly uplifting oneself, incorporating African traditions to do so.
She shares a story: “I teach a class in Brooklyn not far from the Marcy Housing Projects and most of my students are all children of color. A few weeks in, I realized that one little girl was having some behavioral issues and I wanted to make sure not to exclude her and also not to give her negative attention. So I went home, did research and found an African cultural tradition where instead of punishing a person for doing something wrong, you put them in a circle, say positive things and remind them of who they are.” She did that with the child in class, and she never had a problem with her again.
Even though the lessons she teaches are rooted in African Diaspora teachings, the children in Philbert’s class at Cumbe have a variety of ethnic backgrounds. “The majority of my students in the class are not of color but the traditional lessons they learn still apply to laying the foundation to help them get in touch with their spirits,” she says.
This class diversity is reflective of the population trends of residents in the area. According to the Urban Research Maps census data, the white population in the Downtown Brooklyn area increased from 30.4 percent to 42.2 percent between the years 2000 and 2010. The black population in the area decreased from 31.5 percent to 22.9 percent in the same time frame. These demographic shifts explain the diversity in Philbert’s class, as well as the same gentrifying forces in the neighborhood that are pushing Cumbe out of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, just like many of the other intimate cultural hubs in Brooklyn, Cumbe is looking for a new home due to the location being taken over by a real estate company planning to build a tower of high-rise apartments in its place.
Cumbe’s owners say that it would be ideal to stay in downtown Brooklyn, but rising real-estate rates (noted by the Brooklyn Real Estate Reports)and the influx of over 15,000 new residents to the area in 2013 has made it difficult to find an affordable and stable place. Cumbe’s current location caters to students all across Brooklyn, not just in the downtown area. Ross says, “We would love to stay in this neighborhood, especially because it is accessible to get to from most of the major subway lines in the city.”
Cumbe was founded at its Fulton Street location close to three years ago, making relocation even harder because it has just settled in with its clientele. “In terms of the changes in Brooklyn, Cumbe now has to find a new location due to the rezoning,” says Ross. “It’s been a struggle to say the least and it’s a huge move for us because as you know, it’s a very expensive area.”
Whitaker, a San Francisco native, has seen the sweep of gentrification in her own city and says she saw it happening after moving to Brooklyn years ago. She talks about the black and cultural community and candidly poses the question, “Where we supposed to go?”
Cumbe has not figured that out yet, but as long as it remains in these busy downtown streets, its impact is remarkable. Other outstanding dance programs in Brooklyn, such as Asase Yaa, Restoration, and Batinga Dance, have also had great impact in communities of color with their individual focuses on reaching out to youth, teachings history along with dance moves, and encouraging creative expression in lower-income communities. These spaces, just like Cumbe, are dedicated to upholding the importance of carrying on traditions.
“No matter what type of dance I have studied, through African dance it is clear that we [people of color] are limitless. It’s a part of our spiritual base and if we did not have dance we would not be full in a certain way. Movement is innate, it’s almost in our DNA,” Philbert says laughingly.
Keeping these dance centers around is essential to understanding the history and agency that comes along with the movement that is ingrained in cultures of the African Diaspora, despite the misconceptions that are often formed. “Cumbe is important because people of the Diaspora need a place where they can go to feel empowered and are of power in that space,” says Ross. “It is beneficial to the community as a whole to also have the opportunity to come and experience the Diaspora, so that they can grasp that certain inequalities and perspectives are not based in truth, and to see that the Diaspora is so beautiful, rich, and open.”
The transformations in Brooklyn are inevitable and do not seem to be discontinuing any time soon. But as it remains, Philbert notes, keepers of the culture must keep doing what is necessary to continue building up the spirits of beings, reminding people of who they are and how they can adapt those lessons to the constant changing of their communities.