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Arts Toolkit

Arts Toolkit: Dance

Kentuckians in Dance

African Dancer/Artistic Director Harlina Churn-Diallo
Louisville, Kentucky

Harlina Churn-Diallo

Who Harlina Churn-Diallo, founding artistic director of Imani Dance and Drum Company, started dancing as a young girl living in the Park Hill housing project in Louisville. She has degrees in Pan-African studies and cultural anthropology from the University of Louisville and has studied and performed in Africa, Japan, and Paris as well as throughout the United States. In addition to African dance, she has studied, performed, and taught tap, ballet, clog, Native American, salsa, jazz, and belly dancing. She has choreographed for Stage One children's theater in Louisville and for the Experimental Black Actors Guild of Chicago. She teaches African dance at U of L, has taught dance at the Youth Performing Arts School (YPAS) in Louisville, and has served as arts and education director for youth outreach programs at Louisville's Chestnut Street YMCA. With her husband, Yaya Diallo, a world-renowned expert in African drumming, Harlina performs traditional African dances around the world with Faraa Donia, which means “African Knowledge” in the Mandinka language. Imani means “face” in Swahili.

In the Dance Arts Toolkit, Harlina is featured in the “West African Dance” and “African Dance Performances” segments on the African Root video/DVD and in the “Iye, Iye” segment on the Dance Performances video/DVD. She also contributed to the “Dance and Culture” section of the Dance Arts Toolkit binder.

What “My job is to design the vision, mission, and goals for the [dance] company—what the company is to be known for. I also do costuming, and I look at the lighting and props that are used, the music that is used. I do basically all the work, because I don't have people who work for me.”

When “I usually work five days a week, plus at festivals in the summer.”

How “Having a dance company is a business as well. One challenge is the difficulty with funding. There are fees to rehearse and perform in various venues. You have to make sure you have a nice environment to produce dance in. Another challenge is getting the community to buy into and take ownership in a locally owned business. One of the biggest challenges, because I do traditional African dance, is that I don't use recorded music, so I have to find people who are committed to learning to play African drums. Training to play an African drum is time-consuming, like with any instrument. There are women who drum, but it's hard to find men who are committed to learning an instrument, because of the whole stigma that's placed on dance and music for men.”

Why “After getting my college degrees, I came back to Louisville. One day I heard some drumming in Shawnee Park. There were people teaching drumming and dance at that time, but they hadn't had a chance to share with the community the marriage between music and movement. I started to dance, and a really big celebration happened in the park. A connection happened. People were just dancing what they felt. There was an African-American theater company in Louisville, and I choreographed The Wiz. Imani was formed in 1987. I help develop self-confidence and self-worth in African-American children and adults and give others greater appreciation and respect for African culture and the polyrhythmic sounds of Africa. When I hear people say, ‘I didn't know that ...,' then we've created a bridge of dialogue.”

Getting There “Get a passport and travel the world, so you can bring to your dance company a world base, not this little-bitty myopic view about culture. Music has been a tool of communication for thousands of years. You don't have to be the best dancer in the world. You have to be able to give to your students this knowledge that you have that makes them want to get more knowledge, to understand that their bodies are works in progress. You add sound and props to help give light to your dancers. We're like the light bulb as artistic director. How you get there is on the dancers themselves.”

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