Now Breathe: Red Clay Dance + Keiga Dance Company: A reflection by Marceia Scruggs

Now Breathe: Red Clay Dance + Keiga Dance Company
Collaboration Brings Chicago and Ugandan Dance Company Together

By: Marceia Scruggs

cover image by the author: Community workshops at the Uganda National Theatre


Years in the Making

Ever felt like the timing of things was perfect? Like all of the fruits that you laid were finally harvesting for a purpose?

Meet Vershawn Sanders-Ward, founder and artistic director of Red Clay Dance Company of Chicago, IL. She sees what seems like a 10-year journey now budding before her eyes.

After completing her MFA in 2007, Sanders-Ward traveled to Senegal for a three-month program where she met Jonas Byaruhanga, the founder of Keiga Dance Company, which is based in Uganda. It was then that the conversations of partnership and collaboration initially began. Instantly, the two connected, perhaps because they shared the English language as well as a distinctive movement vocabulary and vision. When reflecting on her first moments of witnessing his movement, Vershawn recalled his choices as being “untainted,” describing him, as “having a clear distinction of how exactly he wished to move his body through space.”

But, it wasn’t until 2010 when Jonas and Vershawn reunited at Dance Transmissions Festival of Uganda, where they performed a duet the two were creating alongside other work, that they realized their desire to continue to collaborate.

Years later, their schedules finally aligned. Ideas were stream-flowing. All that was lacking was the vital funding to turn what seemed to be inconceivable ideas to tangible reality. Funding from the MacArthur Foundation International grant propelled both Vershawn and Jonas’ vision.

Here we are years later, Red Clay and Keiga Dance both in the Pearl of Africa, created a plethora of unimaginable experiences, this past fall. From the red dirt that lied underneath their feet to the overwhelming welcoming community, from breathtaking rehearsals to joyously fulfilling moments of bonding as both individuals and companies, the experience this past October couldn’t be any more honest or surreal. Riding ATV’s through the village, getting massages on the Nile River, and watching contemporary artists perform on the beautiful rooftop of Alliance Français were just a few surreal moments during Red Clay’s two-week residency in Uganda.

A day at the Nile River: Image by the author

A Springboard to Deeper Collaboration

When asked what excites her most about the collaboration, Vershawn responded, that it’s “how greatly this expands my creative process as well as the capacity to which this work moves into a deeper collaboration,” which feels like a “springboard to other experiences”. With Jonas recognized as a Ugandan pioneer, fusing traditional and contemporary forms, she’s extremely thrilled to potentially facilitate audiences in Chicago to have the opportunity to see and honestly respond to his creative work. And, with the outstanding prominence of West and Central traditional dance in the States, she’s excited to explore this rich culture, as well as undo the assumption that all African dance is the same and that all Africans can do all African dance.

Holding onto Sensations

On a more personal note, having the opportunity to dance alongside black bodies – black, male bodies at that – was an overwhelmingly amazing experience for myself. Sharing opinions, movement, experiences, and setting a continuous vulnerable atmosphere – we all grasped hold of this driving force that allowed us to jump wholeheartedly into the process. I’m most thankful for this reawakening of my senses, allowing vulnerability to surface, and everything/everyone around me to influence what’s happening in the present, the product-creation. And, with all artists mentally and physically available, this not only cultivated a safe space for us to all work, but it furthered the prospect of the two companies touring.

Both companies together: Keiga and Red Clay’s “Until next time”: image by the author

Finally back at O’Hare Airport, the atmospheric shift was automatically sensed. Of course, I was overjoyed to be home, but I also missed the warm weather and people of Uganda. Three weeks later, back in the heart of Chicago, holding onto those sensations of inhaling and having little urgency to go anywhere – it seemed to trickle from the outer skirts of my skin. My clench became less and less aggressive as I came to the realization that maybe finding a happy medium between the two polar opposite environments of relaxation and hyperactivity would be best for myself, that by creating a daily genesis of goals, if three out of five were met, the day was still considered productive.


Marceia Scruggs is a member of Red Clay Dance.

Red Clay Dance lives to transform cultural and socio-economic imbalances in our communities. And, we’re hoping our presence will influence confidence, non-erasure of vital cultural and contemporary forms, and the validity of women’s pursuit in both African and American contemporary dance scenes.

Keiga Dance visited and continued the collaboration in Chicago this month in December 2017. Look out for performances in and future exchange in 2018.