On August 1, 2012, Collective of Black Artists (COBA) moved to a new home on the main floor of the Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre. Nicole Griffith-Reid, Executive Director of COBA, and Dammecia Hall, a company member, discuss the new space and COBA’s evolving role in the Regent Park community.
Noting the community-engaged focus of other organizations in the neighbourhood, Nicole is excited for COBA to “be part of somewhere that’s already a destination.” Combining performance and rehearsal space, the RPACC studios provide fantastic infrastructure that is customized to COBA’s needs. The new location also offers improved accessibility and visibility for COBA’s programs. From a programming perspective, Regent Park is a ‘very young community’, and that fits with COBA’s mission and mandate. COBA has already created inroads to the community, participating in Sunday in the Park for the past three years, performing for Artscape and partnering with Pathways to Education.
For Dammecia Hall, packing up twenty years worth of costumes and instruments is a learning experience in itself. Dammecia has been dancing since she was five, and has just finished her first year with COBA. Although she started learning ballet at a young age, she discovered West African Dance at age 13. Excelling in both hip hop and West African Dance, Dammecia describes herself as “not just a one-type dancer.” For Dammecia, the two kinds of dance complement one another because “a lot of hip hip has originally come from West African dance.” In fact, Dammecia points out that skills and techniques “bleed into each genre, so that West African Dance helps hip hop and hip hop helps West African Dance.”
With its emphasis on both contemporary and traditional dance forms, COBA offers Dammecia a diversity of artistic choices. She explains, “It’s rare to find a place that hold all those disciplines at the same time; COBA has that path.”
Nicole agrees that COBA is “speaking to different dancers out there.” Just as Dammecia explores the relationship between hip hop and West African dance, Nicole says that “COBA tries to reflect how dance has evolved and make it relevant to contemporary urban students.”
Reflecting on her own development as a dancer, Dammecia contrasts her experiences in Toronto and Winnipeg. She moved to Toronto from Winnipeg in order to audition for and join COBA. Although Dammecia found that Winnipeg offered opportunities in certain kinds of dance, such as ballet, there was “not much in the way of African dance.” Coming to Toronto was “intimidating,” but Dammecia asserts that “the passion of the dancer usually outweighs that; you want the challenge.” She is energized by the resources available in the city. At COBA, Dammecia hones her skills as both a teacher and a learner. She attends sessions and rehearsals as well as leading a drop-in hip hop class. Among all of the dance activities in Toronto, Dammecia says the trick is “finding your pocket.” In her case that means teaching at a local gym and dancing in music videos, in addition to working with COBA.
COBA creates opportunities for audience members as well as dancers. Nicole explains that traditional dance is rooted in “lived experience” of “something as simple as washing, life in the village.” Dance recreates lived experience so that “people feel like they are there.” Because the emotional impact of COBA’s performances breaks down barriers between dancers and audience members, “you are not just a spectator.” Instead, the power of creative movement encourages audience members to think critically about the cultural traditions of Africa and the African diaspora. As Nicole points out, this is central to COBA’s mission to highlight and celebrate history.
Even offstage it is clear that COBA is “more than dance.” Speaking with Nicole and Dammecia I can feel the passion of this talented group of artists. The boxes and drums that fill the studio are tangible evidence of COBA’s vision of bringing the past and the present together through the lived experience of dance. With a long history of working with other organizations and connecting with diverse audiences, COBA is well positioned to take full advantage of its new space in the heart of Regent Park.
Emily Macrae is the Neighbourhood Arts Network 2012 Summer Intern