Alafia Dance Ensemble
NATIONAL/ETHNIC IDENTITY: African-Haitian
ARTISTIC DIRECTORS: Valerie Watson, Mariella Morales
First appearance in SF EDF: 2008
Valerie Watson founded Alafia Dance Ensemble in 1995 in order to showcase the intricate beauty of Afro-Haitian dance and music. A professor of dance at San Francisco City College since 1980 and a 3rd-generation Dunham dancer and teacher, Watson began the company with students in Afro-Haitian Classes, a tradition that continues. Alafia Dance Ensemble has performed in many venues, including the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Haitian Flag Day Celebration, Great American Music Hall, Maitri’s Annual Fundraising Event, Konbit 2nd Annual Haitian Dance, Music and Arts Festival, CubaCaribe Festival of Dance and Music, Spring Inspiration, and San Francisco City College Dance Concerts. Valerie Watson and Mariella Morales are co-directors of the ensemble.
DANCE ORIGIN: Haiti
ARTISTIC DIRECTORS: Valerie Watson, Mariella Morales
CHOREOGRAPHER: Florencia “Fofo” Pierre
DANCERS: Tia Covington, Daniel Derrick, Brigitte Knight, Olivia Lopez, Mariella Morales, Rita Pantaleon, Carmela Rocha, Sarath Sok, Catalina Tapia
MUSICIANS: Joe Churchill (drums), Jaan Jap Dekkar (drums), Sakoto Miyoshi (drums), Zeke Nealy (drums), Ozbe (bell), Florencia “Fofo” Pierre (vocals), Shaker Joe (chekere)
Photo by Mark Muntean
Soley honors Saint Soley, the sun, in a bright Haitian light. Soley is the primary source that balances energy and light, a source that is distant and also powerfully close. This is a theatrical representation of a Vodou prayer.
Soley grew mostly from the peasant mountainside outside of Port-au-Prince, where Vodou is a religion. Cosmological energies provide inspiration to all Vodouists to learn nature and embrace it. Vodou also deeply honors Grammet (God), ancestors, and closely available spirits called lwa. Priests and priestesses—Ougan and Mambo—have equal power to call the lwa to organized ceremony, to heal and initiate people. Lwa Soley fights against injustice—sending light into darkness, trust into miscommunication, awareness, and justice into community. The performance begins with the song Soley,
and the choreography symbolizes the trilogy of the sun family, reminding us the new generation carries new responsibility:
Soley o Atidanyi Boloko Soley O Papa’m se
Soley o manman’m se Soley o ato mwen’m
vini pou’m klere, Soleyo
O Sun! Soley my spirit of Atidanyi Boloko
My father is the sun/My mother as well is the sun
And I am here to shine, O my sun
Each dancer finds a personal connection to Soley, moving closer to mystery—with the beautiful Haitian movement, parigol, “aware of the road, searching for safe journey.” As dancers unite, their movements—called mayi—evoke travel between our world and the spiritual one. Dancing in unison, they share their new nderstanding, and celebrate the many interpretations of Soley.
The piece was created in 2014 and set for stage in 2015 by Madam Florencia “Fofo” Pierre, choreographer, actress, and Mambo Vodou priestess; with a deep spiritual connection with lwa, and dedication to preserving traditional Haitian dance. Madam Fofo also created and designed the costumes: to bring light and blessing, invoking Saint Soley. The traditional African Haitian rhythms—parigol and mayi—are performed with live percussion and accompaniment, expressing a message of hope, love, and perseverance for Haitian cultural heritage. The choreography embodies and celebrates community and the rising of Haiti once again.
DANCE ORIGIN: Brazil
TITLE: Aguas da Oxala
GENRE: Traditional African-Brazilian
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Valerie Watson
ASSISTANT ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Mariella Morales
CHOREOGRAPHER: Paco Gomez
MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Mark Machina
COSTUMES: Dandha da Hor
DANCERS: Adrian Arredondo, Javon Brandon, Mayra Cortez, Mariella Morales, Shawtel Okonkwo, Carmela Rocha, Sarath Sok, Tobi Thomas, Grace Torres
DRUMMERS: Nicolas Bell, Josue D’Boa, Eric Hoffman, Gary Johnson, Mark Machina
Aguas da Oxala (pronounced “Oshala”) honors the Orixas —the deities of the African-Brazilian Candomblé tradition, in a religious piece set for the stage. The story celebrates the return of Oxalá, the Father, to his island. It opens with male dancers clearing the space of negative energy. Then the Yabas (female Orixas) clean and order the space precisely according to what Oxala requires. Then Oxala makes his presence, and the dancers gather to celebrate.
This performance honors the centuries-long, deep presence of African religion in Bahia, Brazil. It shows the origins of Lavagem do Bonfim (Washing of Bonfim), an annual Candomblé ceremony that merges traditional Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, and Bantu beliefs brought to Brazil in the colonial era. In the city of Salvador, the Catholic Festa do Bonfim is ten days long. During this time, a group of Bahia ladies in brilliant white turbans and long, round skirts, walks eight kilometers to the Bonfim Church. The women ritually wash the church’s steps and square with perfumed water, dancing and singing chants in Yoruba. The Catholic Lord of Bonfim is associated with the Candomblé deity Oxala, the Father of the Orixa and creator of humankind. So this washing attracts thousands of believers from all over, most of them dressed in white.
The choreography of Aguas da Oxala is symbolic. Males dance with strong movements, and females with soft fluidity. Water rinses away negative energy, and planting seeds is for regeneration. Shaking cowry shells invites a prophecy, and laying a sheet over Oxala shields his overwhelming brilliance. Costumes represent female deities: yellow for Oxum, green for Oxossi, red for Yansa, and blue for Yemanja. The men wear colors of the male deities: red for Xango, blue for Ogum, and green for Oxossi. Oxala wears beautiful white for purity. The music contains Candomblé rhythms, also signaling the presence of various Orixa and honoring them.
The choreographer is Paco Gomez, a master of Brazilian contemporary dance who also trained the dancers. He grew up in Salvador; his mother is a Candomblé initiate. The piece was created in 2011 and set for the stage in 2012.
TITLE: Empowerment - Otorize
ASSISTANT ARTISTIC DIRECTOR/
CHOREOGRAPHER: Mariella Susana Morales
ASSISTANTS TO THE CHOREOGRAPHER: Gabriella Cole, Valerie M. Watson
DANCERS: Jennifer Baron, Cheryl Freeman, Brigitte Knight, Jessica Lagedrost, Sharon Lao, Mariella Emilia Morales, Mariella Susana Morales, Charlotte Nehm, Rita Pantaleon, Sarazeta Ragazzi, Orly Ramirez, Donalio Saldana, Vanessa Sanchez, Juan de Dios Soto, Dana Thomas, Valerie M. Watson
GUEST DANCERS FROM GROUP PETIT LA CROIX: Blanche Brown, Heather Easley, Portsha Jefferson, Linda Johnson, Shawn Merriman-Roberts, Rene Walker
MUSICIANS: Fasica Alemayehu, Baba Duru, Ron Jackson, Alfie Macias, Michelle Martinez, Preston Mitchell, Gaku Watanabe
VOCALISTS: Ka'ala Carmack, Sandrine Malary, Gloria Yamato
Ogu o, mwen blesse Ogu, oh I am woundedAlafia's performance—titled Empowerment—celebrates the Battle of Vertières and the Haitian victory. Choreographer Mariella Morales created this piece in 2007 for the Haitian Vertières Day celebration at Ashkenaz; the choreography represents a culture that was abducted in the slave trade, brought to a new world, and kept alive through dance and song. The piece begins with Nago, continues with the blowing of a conch shell to sound the attack, and ends with a victory celebration, alive with the bright colors of Haiti''s first flag.
Ferai o, mwen blesse Ferai, oh I am wounded
Mwen pa we sow we I don’t see what you see
In 1492, Columbus claimed present-day Haiti for Spain. In the 1600s, France acquired control of the colony, renamed it St. Dominique, and transported in 500,000 African slaves to farm sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo, and cotton. St. Dominique became Europe''s most prosperous colony. It also became infamous for its exceptional cruelty to enslaved Africans.
In 1791, St. Dominique''s slaves began their long and bloody fight for freedom, and in 1803, they won. In the Battle of Vertières—the final battle of the Haitian Revolution—Haitians defeated 30,000 Napoleonic troops. This historic defeat delivered a major blow to France, and paved the way for the abolition of slavery in the Americas.
Traditionally, African and Haitian Vodou groups summon a set of ancestral spirits—lwas—with a unique set of rites, drumming rhythms, song, and dance. Empowerment uses five rhythm/dance/song groups associated with the Vodou lwas. The first, nago, is from the Nigerian Yoruba people and represents the Diety Ogun. The Nago lwas are warriors and leaders, giving masculine, fatherly council and support. The next rhythm is for the Petwo lwas, who are aggressive, demanding, quick, and protective. Many believe these to be the spirits of the original slaves and Haiti’s indigenous people—the Taino—who were almost completely wiped out after European contact. These spirits were invoked during the slave revolts and the defeat of Napoleon''s troops. The third rhythm, kongo, is from the Congo River basin. Kongo lwas are ancestors of the Bantu people, gracious spirits who enjoy song and dance. The fourth rhythm is rara, signifying a masquerade band of musicians associated with Vodou temples and secret societies. And, finally, the Gède lwas—with a rhythm and dance style called banda—are tricksters, dressed in black with white faces. These spirits control the cycle of death and life.
For the 30th Anniversary Festival, Alafia shares the stage with guest dancers from Group Petit La Croix, including Blanche Brown, one of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Awardees.
Back to top