Picture This Post (PTP) talks with Rubie Inez Williams (RIW), Director of Operations of the Asase Yaa Cultural Arts Foundation. She started at Asase Yaa as a dancer in 2002 and now oversees the daily operations of the Cultural Arts Foundation. With Picture This Post, Williams discusses Asase Yaa’s recent benefit concert and her thoughts on how the Black Lives Matter movement will impact the dance industry.
(PTP) What do you think the future of dance looks like in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement?
(RIW) I think many Black and African artists both mainstream and more community based have been openly sharing, supporting, and focusing on Black dance and Black artists, and all of the great work that they have been doing for many years, which is great. I am not certain what the future will hold but my hope is that our voices and expressions will be heard and given a larger platform more widely moving forward.
One of my biggest hopes is that Black and specifically African art and dance can be given a larger platform to be shared on and included in the dance world globally with the same respect given to other genres of dance. Additionally, I hope that our voices, movements, and experiences will more globally be included in the dance world.
Art has always been used as a form of protest and I'm certain will always be used in that manner. I personally believe that the presence of Black dancers, choreographers, industry leaders, and stakeholders at all levels and involved in the conversations and decisions around how dance is curated and ways to better understand dance from African and the African diaspora better is needed as well.
I have seen the youth improve academically, socially, and emotionally during the time they spend with us. We have worked with youth who have participated in our programs and those who have not but have become a part of the Asase Yaa family.
We strive to create a sense of family and community amongst our youth and so for those who have not participated in our program it is also another home and safe space. We have seen the grades of youth improve as well as an increase in discipline and focus.
The neighborhoods in Brooklyn have had a swell in the arrests of youth for crimes, and an increase in domestic violence cases as well. This is on top of some families not being able to financially support themselves due to the closure of most industries due to the pandemic. This is one of the reasons we knew it was a necessity to raise these funds to support our youth.
So recently, we decided to do the benefit concert in order to continue to get the word out and raise funds towards our goal of raising $50,000 to hire youth this summer. We had already received a decent amount of support and wanted to continue to share the story of our youth as we had not met the goal and refused to give up.
The goal is to raise $50,000 to employ 20 youth this summer due to the initial cancellation of the annual NYC SYEP (Summer Youth Employment Program) due to COVID-19. We have not met these goals as of yet, but are hopeful and thankful for the outpouring of support we have received thus far. The response thus far has been amazing! Most people have enjoyed the concert that we put together. Many people have expressed enjoying seeing the youth speak for themselves and also the variety of artists from within our community that used their voices to support as well.
How and why did the Asase Yaa Cultural Arts Foundation get started?
Asase Yaa first began in 2001 as Asase Yaa African-American Dance Theater, which is a professional African dance company based in Brooklyn, NY. The company was founded by Yao Ababio who is a musician, dancer, and choreographer and has traveled the world and studied the movement and music of Africa for many years. The company was formed by a collective of like-minded young artists with a passion for African tradition, art, and culture and who committed themselves to presenting this art form at its highest level. We are lifelong students who are committed to maintaining the daily rituals of African philosophy and culture and know that these same values will help support the positive progression of our communities for generations to come.
By telling African stories, using African diasporic music, dance, and culture we seek to educate our community, inspire creativity and a sense of pride and dignity in our youth. Through our various programs and events, we use the performing arts to entertain our community and enrich the lives of our audiences. The stories and history of our people are rich and beautiful and instill pride and dignity in us. Through the stories we tell in our ballet’s we are able to share this rich culture with our audiences and expose them to authentic African diasporic art forms while also fulfilling our mission. We make sure that each story includes the cultural context and backdrop that it is connected to.
When did you fall in love with dance and how has this impacted your efforts at the Asase Yaa Cultural Arts Foundation?
I have been dancing since I was 4 years old. I began dancing with Asase Yaa African-American Dance Theater in 2002 when I graduated from college, but have known the artistic director Yao Ababio since I was much younger dancing in the African dance and drum community in NYC.
My mother is a dancer and choreographer and studied with Katherine Dunham and Ruth Beckford, so I was raised around dance. My own interest in dance began as I was able to express myself and feel free as I dance and perform. My passion and respect for the arts has influenced my work ethic and commitment to the use of the cultural performing arts specifically as a source of inspiration and unity for our youth and our community.
Can you tell our readers about the annual Children Arts Summer Camp and how it uplifts Black voices?
In 2021, we will celebrate 15 years of this annual program that is focused on exposing youth to the cultural performing arts in a safe, fun and exciting environment. The goal is to create a community for our youth and experiences that they will cherish for the rest of their lives. Many of our youth have been with us since they were 4 years old and now are in college and beyond. This year one of our first campers’ son is now enrolled with us, which is amazing and is the reason why we continue this work. She feels that her own experience was valuable enough to ensure that her own child had the same, even during these very strange times.
Children can start in this program at 4 years of age. Our summer camp includes dance, drumming, acting, visual art, and is always connected to the story we are telling that year for our annual performance. An original play is performed by the youth using all of the different pieces that they have learned over the six weeks. Some of the stories we have told include Yaa Asatewa and the Golden Stool, Ananse and The Sky God, stories of Perseverance, and drive that involved the spirit of Malcolm X and Harriett Tubman. The goal is always to teach our youth about the history of their people and community and use that knowledge and experience to inspire their commitment to themselves and their community and its progression.
Tell us about the Mightycause crowdfunding campaign.
Many children have already been negatively impacted by the pandemic and have been separated from friends and family and been removed from their normal routines of experiences and connections. Numerous families I know depend on the funds from summer youth to assist with school fees, books for college, and other necessary expenses. It is very important youth know that they can depend on the communities from which they come and that we will do our best to provide for them and instill this same ethic for the generations after them. They needed to be able to work, to gain new experiences, and gain some sense of normalcy during these strange times as well.
Are you planning any projects or campaigns for the future?
Currently, we are planning our Dance School and OUTREACH programs for the fall as we know that is going to be very important for youth to have access to the arts and extracurricular activities as they adjust to the current state of the world. We had to reschedule an exchange trip to Senegal, West Africa for our youth performance ensemble due to the pandemic and so we are currently planning toward that taking place in the near future and fundraising towards that goal as well.
For more information, please visit the Asase Yaa Cultural Arts Foundation website.
Read more dance reviews by dancers in the Picture This Post Round-Up, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”. Watch this video preview of the story here —