MEMBER MONDAYS | Tonya Pennie

MEMBER MONDAYS is a weekly interview series highlighting current members & alumni of the Austin School of Film + Austin Cinemaker Space community! Each week, we’ll be featuring one of our incredibly eclectic community members, and doing a deep dive into their work. Insight into what makes them, them.

This week, we’re highlighting ACS member Tonya Pennie, the founder and director of Dance Africa Fest, a non-profit organization that showcases African diasporic drum and dance. With the next Dance Africa Fest right around the corner on  Sunday, October 1st, we spoke with her about the birth of the organization, and her continual involvement & support of all things arts in Austin.

Obviously, the enormity of this question is kind of silly for me to ask, but in as general terms as possible, can you talk about your background? What brought you to Austin? What brought you to your love for dance and drum?

What brought me to Austin? Well, initially, I came for adventure! I suppose that’s okay without giving too much of myself away. I remain big on adventure to this day. My background is amazingly diverse, and full of experiences working at all sizes of nonprofits. I like to help people help themselves.

My primary dance training started with classical South African dances and songs of the Xhosa and Zulu. I studied with Lindi Yeni (Kuumba House Dance Theatre) and Janet Dimakatso “Mama D” Hampton of the touring musical Ipi Ntombe, and with Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus.I think potentially studying with “Dima,” as we affectionately called her, opened up my willingness for dance. With Dima it wasn’t just the steps we had to learn; it was the ululations of a language that was foreign but also familiar, and potentially mine; it was the purpose/storyline of the dance; it was learning the rhthyms; it was immersing oneself into a cultural home.

Some time thereafter, I began my West Africa dance training. Depending on what part of the US you’re in, it can be challenging to have the corresponding drum/drummer for a dance style. For example, I don’t think there are many –or any– South African drummers in Austin, which would make it sad on a South African dancer to get down like one would want. What I’m saying is that each dance style has it’s own distinctive rhythms — Congolese dance/drum is different from South African, which is also different from Guinean, and so on. There’s no one iconic style of African dance; potentially there could be 54 styles with there being 54 African countries.

Can you trace back for me to the beginnings of Dance Africa Fest, when it was just a concept. How and when did you decide to create this organization?

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Ah yes. So I developed Dance Africa Fest as part of the programming for Lannaya Drum and Dance back in 2014, along with managing, organizing, curating and producing Dance Africa Fest. I’m the Managing Director and one of the performers in Lannaya. I had been doing some introspective work and realized that artistically, I had been giving a lot of myself away. The next fiscal year, the Cultural Arts Division updated its grant programs. Under the new guidelines Lannaya couldn’t apply for both its operating funding and also grant funding for the festival. In that moment, the decision was an easy one because I was, and am, so invested. To keep the festival programming, I had to apply for funding, first as an individual artist umbrellaed by Austin Creative Alliance, and then as a Texas nonprofit.

It’s one thing to watch a video of the classes and workshops, but it being such a physical event, how is the energy different when you’re in the room experiencing it in person? What can folks expect to when they come October 1st?

It’s bliss. Now, being in the room with a crew of musicians accompanying class, as a dancer, one of the first things I notice is the drumming. The drums will sing to you, collectively together, before you even reach the space. Before you even know it.  There’s a magical point when all the drums and instruments are in sync and it’s electric, and hard to hear anything else.  That’s the kind of magic folks can expect to experience this on Sunday. Especially so with our intense local talent and guest artists flying in.

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Being in the room is so different from watching, or observing. Being in the space, feeling the marley give underneath your toes. All that lends itself to creating the “surround” for the muscle memory you’ll cultivate that day. Maybe your goal is to come and learn every single dance, and every single rhythm being taught that day. Cool, cool. Maybe your goal is to just be in the room and take a class; also uber cool.

We have spoken about this before, and I think your website spells this message out very well, but for those who are just completely unaware and fresh to all the things that you do, why does the Austin community need intensive workshops and dance classes like the ones you harbor? 

Austin can be a monolith a lot of the time, and not in that good way. It’s important to not only talk about diversity, but be about it. Presenting programming like this is one way to enhance public understanding and appreciation of African/black diasporic dance, and its cultural and historical significance. The fest provides a forum to integrate and disseminate information on African/black diasporic dance scholarship, culture, and traditional drum/dance.

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This year’s programming is slimmed down, but historically, the fest brings in a guest artist or two, hosts African diasporic drum and dance workshops and performances, and offers a market where artists can sell their goods/crafts. There’s not another platform in town that does this.

Where do you see Dance Africa Fest in 5 years time?

Sakes alive, that may be the $10 million dollar question. I’ve been thinking about it. Maybe Dance Africa Fest is headquartered in Africa somewhere, but definitely still going strong. I’m excitedly envisioning right now FY18/19, film screenings, and food, and fashion, and maybe dedicated days of dance/drum workshops! I see the fest offering increasingly more African and diasporic programming, and being more of a multi-day event. One has to remember Dance Africa Fest was developed in Austin to pay homage to The Founder, Baba Chuck Davis, and in so doing offer a little bit of Brooklyn to Austin. However, I don’t want to necessarily replicate Brooklyn in its totality, nor do I think I could/should. Time and place for everything. However, I do see the festival happily growing, and partnering with sister organizations to collaborate and bring more artists down, cross-promote; being successfully memorable and anticipated.

You’ve been involved with the non-profit industry for 20 years now. One thing I find really incredible is your involvement in overseeing the Individual Artist Grant program for Houston Arts Alliance. Your passion for the arts and giving back is extraordinary, but not all folks who are artists feel as if they need to give back. Why is that so important to you?

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I loved that program. I advocated for the board of directors to increase the funding pot so more artists would be awarded, and at a greater capacity. I did behind the scenes magic like that (Tonya the undercover Advocate for the Arts!). But really, my joy is connecting with folks and helping people learn how to help themselves and shine. That might be part of my healing practice too, my willingness and affection to serve; and to also get down with the boogie! But seriously, I started off pretty much abandoning my videography career to help artists (friends) get the support and tools they needed to get those IAG grants. I imagine I give back because it’s not just the value in it: I’m helping my friends, neighbors, community, young people I teach/connect with in class — shoot, I’m helping me!—- I give back for all those reasons and so much more. I guess maybe I give back because it’s in me, and that’s always going to be me.

INTERVIEW BY: Spencer Mirabal

[To get tickets to Dance Africa Fest, go HERE! Workshops range from FREE to $20.]

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