Skip to main content

Search NYU Steinhardt

Dance Education Commemorates Black History with Sankofa Event


This year, NYU Steinhardt’s Dance Education program celebrated Black history with a showcase that embraced the principle of Sankofa and uplifted the voices, artistry, and scholarship of the community in the Dances of the African Diaspora concentration.

Represented by an image of a colorful bird, the meaning of “Sankofa” stems from a West African proverb: “It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” 

A group of drummers, dressed in colorful skirts, perform on stage.

“Sankofa encourages us to learn from the past to inform the future, reaching back to move forward, lifting as we climb,” says Deborah Damast, director of the Dance Education program and a clinical associate professor. “As we move forward, knowledge of the past must never be forgotten.”

Curated by Afaliah Tribune and Michelle Cole, both adjunct faculty and advisors for the concentration, the event honored Pearl Primus, the choreographer, dancer, and anthropologist who paved the way for African dances to be presented on concert stages and taught in classrooms. 

“Many years back, Pearl Primus taught in the very studio where we held this year’s event,” says Damast. “This was a tribute to her legacy and an honoring of the history of Black excellence in dance education at NYU Steinhardt.”

“We celebrated Primus through a ritual altar, pouring of libations, and a retelling of her innovative pilot study about teaching African dances in schools in the mid-to-late 1960s,” continues Cole. “She blazed a path for us to have a concentration like this in existence today and we are grateful.”

Celebrating History and Cultures

Dance Education’s Sankofa event featured performances and research presentations from students in the Dances of the African Diaspora concentration. For example, current student Abeba Baptiste presented her research on Yanvalou, a traditional Afro-Haitian dance; she also performed a duet she choreographed with a student in the Master of Arts in Teaching Dance, K–12 track. Danced to Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” overlaid with house music, the multi-style performance was an uplifting depiction of change. 

Two performers hold string instruments on stage.

“The Dances of the African Diaspora concentration has helped me discover and grow my own personal mission to amplify Black bodies and spaces,” says Baptiste. “It’s taught me what I want to give to my students, which is demonstrating that there are lots of different approaches and communities to be celebrated, especially in art forms like dance.”

In addition to the students, many of the Dances of the African Diaspora advisory leaders and alumni also brought their current students to perform, including Brooklyn High School students taught by both Tribune and Shaahida Samuel (MA ’19) as well as a dance student from Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) taught by Leyland Simmons (MA ’17), HSA’s dance director.

Four participants in the Sankofa event pose backstage.

Kevin McEwen (MA ’17) graduated from Steinhardt’s foundational Teaching Dance in the Professions program and was instrumental in helping to create the Dances in the African Diaspora concentration. McEwen, who teaches African and Afro-Caribbean Dance at Queensborough Community College (QCC), invited some of his students to the event to perform a Haitian folkloric dance called Nago.

“On the day of the Sankofa event, the dancers in my West African dance company, called Kofago Dance Ensemble, already had another performance scheduled, so this was a great opportunity to bring in my QCC students,” says McEwen. “With these moments, we are building a larger community that everyone can be a part of, so it was special to get these young people together and give them a chance to shine. This is just the beginning of the kind of uplifting we can do with the Dances of the African Diaspora program.”

The first of a new annual tradition, the Sankofa event was also a great demonstration of the mission of the Dances of the African Diaspora program: one of McEwen’s Kofago company dancers and one of Tribune’s high school student performers have both since been accepted into the concentration and are excited to attend NYU Steinhardt, where their mentors studied. 

Related Articles

Dance Education Turns 90

Celebrating its 90th anniversary last fall, NYU Steinhardt’s Dance Education program has been revolutionary since its inception.

Percussion Performance to Commemorate Black History Month

NYU Steinhardt’s Percussion Ensemble will perform Tim Adams’ "8:46” to commemorate Black History Month. The program will also feature the world premiere of Lenny White’s "The Magnificent Seven" and a rare arrangement of Duke Ellington’s "Malletoba Spank."

Student Choreographs "Mambo Bohemio" for Master's Dance Concert

This piece incorporates NY Style Mambo and Latin Jazz, both music genres and dances that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s in New York City. "Mambo Bohemio" is a romantic, energetic, and passionate piece.

Related Programs

Dance Education

Prepare for a career as a dance educator and teaching artist in schools, studios, and community settings in New York City, the dance capital of the world.

Read More