The Ubuntu of JOMBA!

As I reflect on the deeply immersive experience that was the Digital JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience, I feel overwhelmed and moved. For two weeks, I had an opportunity to prioritize South African contemporary dance and its boundless voice. I was virtually acquainted with the work of Vincent Mantsoe and challenged by my memory of what I knew to be South African contemporary dance with Musa Hlatswayo’s “Abomhlaba(thi)”. Robyn Orlin reminded me of the dynamic force that is Moving into Dance Mophatong and my imagination sparkled as I felt the joy of a skybound Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson in “Revel in your Body.”  Violence against women reared its ugly head in Jabu Siphika's “Ya Kutosha” and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater gave me a sense of confidence and pride with the piece “Parallel Lives.”

Although I began to meet with the cohort of both national and international dance writing fellows via Zoom prior to the start of the digital festival, Flatfoot Dance Company director Lianne Loots set the tone with her opening speech. Loots reflected on Toni Morrison’s “Revision of Memory,” encouraging us to “interrogate recorded memory, insisting that memory is actual and it sits on the body ready to be told and retold and reassembled.” When I moved language and technology out of the way, I began to feel the memories of my personal interactions with the continent. I allowed myself to move freely between past, present and future while leaning into my spiritual understanding when words fell short. 

The breadth of this fellowship did not yield at viewing work from renowned choreographers both in the U.S. and abroad. It persisted as I engaged with the questions of fellow writers and sat with my biases and discomfort when certain choreographies fell upon me. It was a complete experience that left me spent, fulfilled and even more curious. As my memory danced between past, present and future, I kept returning to the importance of the circle in African culture.

“Africans have a thing called Ubuntu. It is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa is going to give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go that extra mile for the sake of another. We believe that a person is a person through other persons; that my humanity is caught up and bound up in yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms, and therefore, you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.”

Desmond Tutu (The Right to Hope: Global Problems, Global Vision,1995).

Nothing says belonging more than a circle and cyclical nature was ever present on both a micro and macro level throughout the duration of JOMBA!—from the cypher-style formation dominating the opening scene of Fana Tshabalala’s “Indumba” to the warm sun salutations that acknowledged the majesty of our existence in Orlin’s “Beauty”. There were the solemn dripping sounds in the film “Ya Kutosha” by Siphika that took us into a violent fury, only to return us to those same lonely drips that haunted us in the beginning of the film. So many of the works honored the circle choreographically in the individual movements and in the pieces’ entirety.

Personally, I was grateful for the full circle moment of seeing Moving into Dance Mophatong perform in Robyn Orlin’s “Beauty Remained for a moment and then returned gently to her starting position.”—a company that I shared a studio with in an open rehearsal in Johannesburg, South Africa during a dance residency a few years ago. Not only did I have a chance to finally see them perform through JOMBA! but I was assigned to review their work. My body remembered the incredible fortitude of their warm ups, the friendliness and patience the dancers extended towards me and their buoyancy between earth and sky. I was also thankful to remember I first heard the word JOMBA! through the JOMBA! Initiative, a cross-cultural collaboration between Flatfoot Dance Company and Deeply Rooted in Chicago six years ago. 

I mention these full circle moments not because they are an intentional connecting of dots but rather a burst of flames in divine order that reignite your purpose when you may have overlooked it the first time. The circle is reinforcement wrapped in a second chance. JOMBA! represented this continuity and sense of community, even in digital form.

Perhaps the pattern of circles that surprised me the most was realizing that your words can actually encourage people to partake in the journey of experiencing dance performances for themselves. That memory goes from personal to interpersonal and the possibilities of remembering can be infinite. Like the circle seen in virtually all of the pieces in the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience, it becomes nearly impossible to separate the performer from the spectator, the backdrop from the stage, the individual from the collective, the past from the future, the virtual from the actual. Everything belongs together. JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience 2020—I came, I saw, I will remember.