Cumbe: Center for African and Diaspora Dance returns home to Brooklyn

La Mora salsa class – Photo by Andrew Kist courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Cumbe: Center for African and Diaspora Dance (Cumbe), a studio championing African Diaspora dance and music returns to Brooklyn, resuming its well-loved classes on September 25. In 2014, they found out they were being tossed from their home to make way for a luxury residential tower. After building out the space and running 50 classes a week to 2,000 students, focusing on traditional and contemporary dances from or influenced by African cultures, the young organization was sent out into the diaspora in early 2015.

Cumbe found a new home via its partnership with RestorationART,the dynamic 21st century creative centerpiece of Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. RestorationART features 5,282 sq. ft. of ground-level studios for performing arts with sprung maple dance floors, mirrored walls, and large storefront windows. These versatile spaces will make Cumbe’s classes visible to the over 1.5 million visitors Restoration Plaza receives annually.

A community day on Saturday, September 23, will offer $5 classes as a homecoming for Cumbe’s students.

I recently spoke with Cumbe’s Executive Director Jimena Martinez.

Congratulations! Not to be negative, but can we start by talking about what it was like to lose your home?

In 2015, we opened up at the studio on Fulton and Flatbush. When we opened, we signed a 10 year lease and thought we’d be there for a good long haul. But, only 2 years into the lease, we received a demolition notice. The landlord told us here was a clause in the lease to terminate, if the building was being demolished. They had the right to break our lease. It was a huge shock and, suddenly, we were out of a space. We were homeless and, as a cultural organization looking for an affordable space, it was a difficult time.

We were actively looking for a new permanent home while establishing relationships with other organizations to maintain a subset of our classes. We got a lot of support from partners. We initially launched classes at Long Island University (LIU) and Brooklyn Friends School for adults.  Ultimately, our adult classes ended up at Gibney Dance Center for the last year. That was a great location and it has been wonderful studio to be in. Many of our students could get there and Gibney has been very supportive in making African diaspora dance a part of their training program. Our children’s classes have been at Brooklyn Ballet since the moment we left the old space. We are so grateful for their support.

But, it was a tough couple of years. As supportive as everyone is, it wasn’t our own space. You can’t control what you offer, you can’t offer as much and financially it’s been tough. During that time, we looked at many different places to rent and renovate and the costs were prohibitive. The renovation costs were crazy!

How did you find your way to your new home?

We had been in conversation with Restoration Art. We’d initially approached them because we knew they had studios. Executive Director Indira Etwaroo had recently joined them for their arts programming and she let us know that they had actually convinced the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to take back a space that they had been leasing commercially.. They flipped the prevailing trend and took a commercial space and made a commitment to regrab it as a cultural space. They got New York State funding to turn a former Duane Reade into new dance studios, to create a new dance space, a new cultural space for the community.

When we’d approached them, they said: “What about settling here and becoming a part of that family?” There are so many beautiful things about it. Restoration has a very strong 5-18 yr old program, but they’d stepped back from adult programs and had been focusing on other things. Our audience is primarily adults, our students are primarily adults, so it was a nice complement. They were happy to offer this to the residents of Bed-Stuy and other surrounding communities. They are focused on creating a dynamic and invigorating world class location in Bed-Stuy for African diaspora arts, as well.

We’re a new resident arts organization within RestorationART and will be sharing the space with their other resident cultural organizations, as well. So, we’re looking forward to potential partnerships that will come from that. For example, the resident choreographers in their ChoreoQuest program might be interested in teaching classes through Cumbe. After being out in our own diaspora we are excited to relaunch a home for African diaspora dance. There should be this place where African and diaspora dance  are front and center. Where people of African descent and anyone interested in this culture can come and learn and tap into it. Our vision is to bring ashé, the power and spirit of African and Diaspora dance, into our modern lives..

That idea of living diasporically brings up such rich imagery for me. I think about the spreading of peoples, of cultures, across oceans and the globe, but the reality of that was probably not so romantic. As a diasporic entity myself, I know that is a complex identity.

It meant travelling all the time. Our administrative offices were separate from where our classes were. It created a dislocation for our students and our teachers. It takes time for a class to take root and to get the students find it. But, both our teachers and our students stuck by us. Despite the interference. Despite the dislocation. And, the relationships that grew out of that will be enduring for Cumbe. We will continue to have classes at Gibney. We’ll have an ongoing monthly workshop series, where we’ll have the chance to offer a range of African diaspora classes over time. It was painful, but it is very exciting to come on the other side of it. It gave us time to do strategic planning and to pause and refocus. It clarified what our core is. We had to stand in what we stand for. And, it allowed us to define what we truly want our offerings to look like.

Can you share something about the upcoming Community Dance Day? The line up looks great.

Lamine Thiam Sabar dance class by Dominique Taylor

Community Dance Day is an old tradition. But, without our home, we couldn’t do it the last couple years. People can take multiple classes and try out different forms.   Classes all happen on one day. The line up is exciting  – we begin in the morning with a children’s capoeira class and will have Soca-based fitness, Congolese-based fusion, Afro Haitian, Samba, Afro House Fusion, Rumba. It’s a potpourri of who our instructors are going to be at RestorationART.

We want folks to come on out and get to know our new space. The floors are lovely sprung floors. We’re so excited about it. We want to open our arms and say come on in, we’re excited to see you again. Bed-Stuy is a new community for us. A lot of our students have been from Bed-Stuy and surrounding areas, so we’re excited to get to know the new community.

And, then that Monday, Sep 25, you begin again? What has changed since you last had a home?

Starting that Monday we go into our full schedule. We’ll be offering classes every day and are creating movement classes for toddlers. Our core offerings of W. African, Haitian, Samba and Cuban remain, as do many of our beloved teachers: Julio Jean, La Mora, Lamine Thiam, Danielle Lima, Ousmane Sall, etc.. They are still at our core, but we’ve gotten to know new instructors and are bringing on more contemporary forms and social dances. For example, Kim Holmes has brought in an Afro House Fusion class for us. One of the things that we’ve loved is figuring out how to have an experience where, because we’re all in one setting, we can see what all these forms share. This allows us to see how through common roots in Africa, they evolve. And, we can see the ways they have evolved and to consider why they’ve evolved that way. It’s a great variety in one place and a wonderful way to showcase these instructors.

We’re also restarting our own cultural programming. We’ve wanted to give people different ways to experience African diaspora. So, we’re planning barefoot parties because these styles didn’t start as studio classes, right? We want to bring in some parties and lecture demonstrations so you can understand how dances from Nigerian Orisha traditions look in Brazil and in Haiti and in New Orleans. So, adding those parts back in.

I can’t say enough how important it is for us to have this home where we can showcase African and Diaspora dance. It  allows for us to share so much more. There is so much wisdom embodied in each dance. Because of its history, each dance represents a different, oftne difficult journey. Depending on the different dances there’s joy, there’s resistance, the trickster, sensuality…you connect to the earth, you connect with the sky. There’s a world of experience that you get when you encounter African/Diaspora dance and we want everyone to experience this joy and this lifeforce.

September 23 Cumbe Open House Schedule at RestorationART:

9:45 am–10:30 am Capoeira (Instructor: Pena Verde)

10:45 am–11:45 am SOCA’N Wet (Instructor: Bajanalla Cann)

12:00 pm–1:00 pm KongoBeat (Instructor: Eto’o Tsana

1:15 pm–2:15 pm Afro Haitian (Instructor: Julio Jean)

2:30 pm–3:30 pm Samba (Instructor: Danielle Lima)

3:45 pm–4:45 pm Afro House Fusion (Instructor: Kim Holmes)

5:00 pm–6:00 pm Rumba (Instructor: Stevie Insua)

5:00 pm–6:00 pm Dancehall (Yaminah Legohn)

Cumbe summer camp – Photo by Svetlana Didorenko

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