I’m a Berkeleyan: Dance lecturer Latanya Tigner: ’African American dance is ethnic dance’

Latanya Tigner teaches a class at UC Berkeley called "African Dance in Hip-Hop" in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. It explores how African dance forms are found in hip-hop movement and African American social dance forms throughout the ages. In this photo, she’s performing "South African Can Dance,” choreographed by Dingani Lelokoane, at the 2012 Malcom X Jazz Festival. (Photo by Teju Adisa Farrar)

I started really dancing in high school. I went to Kennedy High School in Richmond. Dancing gave me an opportunity to be another person who I wasn’t regularly. I’m very shy, but at the club, at the party - it’s a different thing. It allows me to be my authentic self.

Our principal, Mr. Greenwood, was the best. He would allow us to have DJs, and we would have parties on the quad. Oh, my goodness. Those things were the get down, when I tell you.

When Tigner took her first West African dance class at San Francisco State, she felt an instant connection to dancing she’d been doing in the club. (Photo courtesy of Latanya Tigner)

One day, I was in the quad dancing, minding my business, when a dancer - he ended up being my first boyfriend - came up on me, and I was like, "Oh, you’re challenging me right now!" So we went at it, and the next thing you know, there was a crowd around us. And to this day, I am deemed the winner. You can ask anyone. From that moment, it was like, "Oh, this is who I am in this space." I didn’t realize how much of a turning point that was for me moving into this dance world.

I went to San Francisco State, where I got my degree in dance. At the time, it was a very robust program. They had flamenco, Congolese, Capoeira - different ethnic dance forms - along with contemporary, ballet and jazz. I was just immersed in movement.

"Systematically, African American contributions to American culture go missing from history,” says Tigner. "So, it’s important to always go back and know the origins and purpose of a dance and dance form.” In this photo, she’s performing a 2009 piece, "Resilience,” by Deborah Vaughan. (Photo courtesy of Latanya Tigner)

The very first West African dance class I took - Senegalese - I was like, "I just did this last night in the club." For example, the Smurf, a club dance, and Sunu, a courtship dance, both have lateral movements that are structurally and rhythmically the same. I was like, "Oh, there’s something here." But I never talked to anyone about it until years later.

Now, as a lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, I teach a class called "African Dance in Hip-Hop." It explores how African dance forms are found in hip-hop movement and African American social dance forms throughout the ages. African American dance forms are ethnic dance forms.

There’s a lot of dance on campus - a lot of hip-hop, a lot of urban dance. But not a lot of people know about the history of hip-hop - where it came from, the community that started it, the communities that are still contributing to the vocabulary.

Systematically, African American contributions to American culture go missing from history. So, it’s important to always go back and know the origins and purpose of a dance and dance form. You have to know that history. You have to know the names of your teachers and mentors and know who they learned from. You have to give homage. You have to give credit where credit is due.

Latanya Tigner and Kiazi Malonga perform "Ndozi: Ancient Truths Revealed,” choreographed by Tigner, at the 2011 Black Choreographers Festival. (Photo by Kimara Dixon)


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