Art Talk with Jevelle Robinson of the Florida African Dance Festival
July 15, 2014
"I think arts festivals matter because they're life changing, they educate, enlighten, enrich. They uplift." -- Jevelle Robinson
You know the saying “each one teach one?” Well, that could be the tagline for the story of how Jevelle and Marcus Robinson fell in love with African dance and drumming. After participating in a community dance project at a local university, the Robinsons decided to start their own dance company—the African Caribbean Dance Theatre. Several years into that project, they launched the Florida African Dance Festival (FADF), one of the only dance festivals of its kind in their region. The annual summer festival, which has previously received NEA grant support, has now been going strong for the past 17 years. Through workshops and performances in dance and percussion by traditional artists from across the U.S., FADF showcases the beauty and diversity of African culture. We spoke with FADF Executive Director Jevelle Robinson about starting the festival and what keeps her going during the challenging times.
Aboubacar Soumah (l) and Fode Camara perform at the 2012 Florida African Dance Festival. Photo by William Joshua
NEA: What’s the origins story of the Florida African Dance Festival?
JEVELLE ROBINSON: I think I want to start with just a little bit about how Marcus (who's my husband and co-director of the dance company and co-coordinator of the festival) and I got involved in African dance. That whole passion for African dance started at Florida A&M University where we were dancing not as students but as community members with the company there, and the name of the company is Orchesis Contemporary Dance Theatre and Dr. Beverly Barber was the director at the time. So she had the vision not only to approach students but community members and during our tenure there we got, I guess, bit by the bug of African dance. And so we developed the passion there and it was just so transformative [and] life-changing for us. So once we left Orchesis after a few years, skip a few years later, we formed a dance company.
We had been going to a few festivals through the years in Atlanta and Washington, DC, and just enjoying what we were doing at the festival. Coming back home we learned of an opportunity with one of the local agencies… that was rooted in tourism and it required that you have an event that took place during the low months with the hotels, which is May through August. They wanted to generate some hotel stays during the low months. And so we came up with an event, and it's the Florida African Dance Festival. We had seen the templates done in DC and Atlanta and with this opportunity coming available we said "OK, we can do this, too, here" because there was nothing much going on along those lines. [The festival is] consistent in what we do in our year-round program; it's just an expansion of it. We got motivated by the opportunity to receive funding through the grant process.
NEA: What’s the story that you want to tell with the festival?
ROBINSON: We want people to know the beauty of African dance and drumming and overall African culture through African dance and drumming…. Many of the participants are dance companies that come, African dance-based companies that come to learn more technique from the dance and the drum artists. So we want them to be able to take knowledge to enhance their dance companies, to enhance what their journey is as far as African dance and drumming go.
Linsey McDaniel performs at the 2013 Florida African Dance Festival. Photo by William Joshua
NEA: What are some of the challenges of putting together a festival like this?
ROBINSON: The biggest challenge is lack of funding… Being that we're in Tallahassee [in] North Florida where there was not a whole lot of African dance and drumming activity going on prior to the formation of our company… it's been difficult to access artists. We have to basically bring in a lot of people to the area so it's very costly for the travel. The accommodations that we provide for the artists while they're here--meaning food, lodging, ground transportation--It's very expensive. And then, of course, their professional fees. I think that if we had more funding we could take it to a whole other level, but the lack of funding has really limited us in terms of what we're able to do.
NEA: What has surprised you the most about how the festival has developed?
ROBINSON: I think probably the most amazing thing… is that we're still standing. There have been so many challenges and bumps along the way to make us want to consider just throwing the hat in. But we're still standing and I think the children that we serve, the people that we serve, they give us energy to keep refueling…. The dance festival will be 18 years old next year, and the dance company, turns 22 next year.
NEA: How do you keep yourself going during the challenging times?
ROBINSON: To be honest, sometimes we just say that the creation of a dance company, the creation of the festival, is not of our doing. We are, meaning my husband and me as co-founders [and] co-directors, we're merely conduits. It's the work of the ancestors. My husband is a retiree; he worked with the city of Tallahassee for 32-plus years in information systems. And I left my job to come and work for the dance company about… eight to ten years [ago]. And when you're first starting out, who chooses to be poor? When we have to make budgetary decisions, the first things that we consider are our percussionists as far as the dance company is concerned and making sure we can pay out facility rental and what have you. And then as far as me as the executive director, [I get paid] whatever's left. Now my husband, who's the Artistic Director since day one, he has not accepted payment….He oversees the percussion personnel, he has done choreography, he teaches….. As far as the festival is concerned, he coordinates all the artists, their travel, the scheduling for them, all of their concerns while they're here. Oh, it's major! And throughout our history he has not accepted payment. So it's the passion for [the art form] and it's that other intangible work that's going on, the creative work that's keeping this going.
NEA: Fill-in-the-blank: Arts festivals matter because....
ROBINSON: I think arts festivals matter because they're life changing, they educate, enlighten, enrich. They uplift. They help you to refuel, they inspire. They provide a great opportunity for exchange.
Liked this interview? Then you'll probably like our issue of NEA Arts magazine devoted to nothing but festivals.