Michiana’s only African/Afro-Contemporary dance company UZIMA! Drum and Dance returns to the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Presenting Series on January 20 and 21 for two performances. This will be UZIMA’s first performance at the center since 2018 and is one of several events happening on campus for Walk the Walk Week, a week-long series of events observed in conjunction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, designed to help us consider how we — both individually and collectively — can take an active role in making Notre Dame more welcoming and inclusive.
Below, UZIMA! performers share with us what it’s like to be part of the group and what they hope audience members will take away from their performance.
What does uzima mean and how does the group embrace its name?
Michelle Jewell — Director of Communications/Dancer/Flagger
UZIMA! Drum and Dance takes its name from the Swahili word for dance. But, in African culture, to dance means more than just to move — the literal translation of “uzima” is wholeness, health, and life.
UZIMA! Drum and Dance lives by those three very important words that are at the core of our name. As a group, UZIMA! embraces and celebrates the wholeness of each individual member and the unique and special talents and gifts they bring. Health, be it physical, emotional, mental, or financial, is also at the center of UZIMA!’s focus. We strive to help each of our members achieve their optimal health and wellness so that they are not only better performers but better people and better members of our community. The final tenant of UZIMA! is life. We celebrate life in all its stages, from young to old, from happy occasions to the somber moments that are inevitable.
Our goal is to meet each of our members where they are in their life and welcome them, challenge them, and help them grow. Wholeness, Health, and Life is not just how UZIMA! functions within our own dance family: we want to take the spirit of Wholeness, Health, and Life out into the community and the world to leave each space we enter better than it was when we found it.
Nekeisha Alayna Alexis — Dancer
What UZIMA! means to me, two things. One is family and community. I love the people and the energy that they bring. I love being a part of this group. It is more than a dance company: It is friendship. It is love. It is caring for each other. And so, that’s definitely one of the things that I love about UZIMA!
The other thing I love, from a personal perspective, is that I get to do something that I didn’t think I would ever be able to do. I am 42. I am past the age of, you know, ballet and I never did dance as a kid. And so when you get to this age, you start to think, I’m well beyond this opportunity to perform, to dance, to dance in front of people. The fact that this space is bringing that out in me and teaching me how to do it and to do it well and in a spirit with excellence at this season in my life just feels so incredible.
I get to live out a little bit of a dream here in UZIMA! and I’m so grateful to the group and to Kelly, especially, for creating the space for it.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this performance?
Kelly Burgét — Artistic Director/Choreographer/Dancer/Flagger
One of the things that I love about African dance is that it was never created to be a performance. It was created so that the tribe, the village, the community has a way to journey through life together. The good times and the bad, the highs and the lows. To celebrate together the birthing of new life, the unity of two people making a decision to commit to a lifetime together, the passing of our children growing from childhood into maturity.
We also learn how to mourn together as a life completes its journey on this earth and when we must say goodbye to those leaving the community for various reasons. We learn to celebrate prosperity and how important it is to share the fruits of our labor with those who live among us.
African dance is a picture of how we were meant to live. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I would like to add that it takes a village to journey through life. So, I hope that everyone who comes will know that they are invited to the drum circle where the things that separate us — political ideologies, social economics, gender, and race — can fall away as we dance together to the heartbeat of the One who created us all.
Vincenzo Carrasco – Lead Drummer
I hope that what audience members will take after seeing an UZIMA! performance is two things: first, I hope that they are amazed by our performance. We’ve been doing this a long time so I feel like we’ve gotten just a lot more in tune with each other over the years. And, number two, and most importantly, I hope that audience members get that feeling that when you work in community the way that we do, anything is possible. All kinds of beauty and all kinds of accomplishments are possible when you work in community.
What is the most rewarding part of performing with UZIMA!?
Pierre Cooks — Assistant Director/Choreographer/Dancer/Flagger
The most rewarding part of performing with UZIMA! would be the deposit of the gift. I love dancing and I love performing and telling stories. But with UZIMA! it almost feels like a passing of knowledge, joy, love, and life from a walk that we’ve had to walk ourselves.
Angel Davidson — Dancer/Flagger
One of the things that is most unique about UZIMA! to me is that nationalities, ages, colors, and races — we’re all here as a family together. We’re able to dance in love. There’s encouragement and inspiration — we come together and we inspire each other to be a better us as dancers and as human beings. And I appreciate that. And I am so extremely thankful for what I’ve gotten out of UZIMA! as my family.
Brayden Lynam — Dancer
The best part I feel about performing with UZIMA! is the camaraderie and love that we show with each other and that we show when we dance and how we share it with the audience. I feel like that is the best part, in my opinion. To have a sense of, like, a second family.
Maya Savannah — Dancer
I think the most rewarding part of being with UZIMA! is the second family that comes built-in with this. You expect the dedication. You expect the commitment. You expect the hard work. But you don’t expect the community of people that are willing to cry with you, laugh with you, and pray with you.
And I just feel like that’s really important to me and it’s something that everybody should be able to experience.
What is your most memorable performance with the group thus far?
Amina Cavallo — Dancer
Everything pre-COVID is kind of a blur, so I would say the most memorable performance for me, is actually a workshop we did at The Music Village and we had one performance at the end of it. What stands out the most is how engaged the participants were at the end because we got in a circle where we typically do our solos and you could see people standing on the periphery wanting to “dip their toe in the water” and come out. But they were kind of nervous and needed a little encouragement.
We would come out and bring them into the circle and they would do some moves in their own unique way, and it was really cool to see people breaking out of their shells and becoming part of the performance as opposed to being a spectator or audience member. It was really cool to see people feel like they’re connected.
We also went into a circle and sang at the end, and you could feel that by the end of the song it wasn’t two separate groups of people, it was one group of people who had shared a really cool experience. That’s what stands out most to me.
What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring dancers and choreographers?
Eileena Davidson — Asst. Director/Dancer
In terms of advice that I could give other dancers, I’d have to say don’t forget why you’re dancing. Sometimes dancing can be really anxiety-inducing or really frustrating or just a bunch of bad emotions because you can’t do what you want. But I mean, for me at least, dancing has always been a really joyful activity. And I have pride in what I do. And I would hate, after all that I’ve done, to forget that feeling. And I just hope that nobody else would either.
Haley Savannah – Dancer
One thing I would say to young dancers and choreographers is just do it. Because I’m the youngest member in UZIMA! and I understand how hard it is when you’re comparing yourself to more experienced, older dancers when you’re dancing. But it’s just not worth worrying about what would happen if you were older, if you weren’t the youngest. Just try your best and do what you can do because worrying about what others can do is limiting what you are putting forth.
What are some challenges that come with performing as a group?
Brielle Hall – Dancer
To dance in front of friends and family and co-workers can be intimidating. However, when you have that adrenaline rush, it’s like you’re on the dance floor and there’s nobody else there but you and God and all the dance moves you’ve remembered and everything. And dancing around my UZIMA! family is so much fun because we’re lifting each other up in the process and there’s so much energy impacted on that dance floor, and it’s just powerful and amazing.
Jade Jewell – Drummer
One challenge that comes with performing with UZIMA! is definitely the scheduling because everyone has their own lives. Everyone has jobs. A lot of us are in school, I’m in school. I also live in a different state. So, it’s just a lot of balancing. But in the end, we all come together to create something really special and beautiful.
Who inspires you as a dancer?
LaKrisha Newbill — Dancer/Flagger
The dancer that inspires me the most is Kelly Burgét. Not only is Kelly an amazing leader and an amazing dancer but she shows up and she just goes forth with love. She loves every single person that comes into her circle, and those people that are even outside the circle, she’ll bring them in. And she just shows them that extraordinary, peaceful, graceful love and acceptance without judgment and is always helping people to grow. Definitely Kelly.
We thank everyone from UZIMA! for their thoughtful answers. While the literal translation of uzima means wholeness, health, and life, it’s apparent that, in this group, it also means family. Don’t miss their upcoming performances on January 20 and 21. Limited tickets remain.