Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021
Tanya Dennis had only lived in Richmond for a short while when she took the position of dance instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1973 and started the first dance program in the physical education department. Dennis taught a variety of dance styles, from modern and ballet to folk and African.
She and her husband had moved to Richmond from California and Dennis didn’t have friends or family in the city, making her feel isolated and alone. To counter those feelings, she decided to expand her role at VCU by starting a student dance group — the Ezibu Muntu African Dance Company.
“I posted notices around the campus and got zero response,” she said.
Then, on a Tuesday night, she was playing the conga drum in the wrestling room of the old Franklin Street Gym when a head peaked in the door. It was a student, Renée Knight Lacy, and she was interested in joining Dennis.
“She told me, ‘I will bring you people,’” Dennis said.
Knight Lacy, who graduated in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree from the School of Education, had been in class when she heard Dennis playing the drums. Knight Lacy had studied African dance in New York. She was the first to sign up for the student group. Faye Walker was the second student to join.
From that humble start at VCU, the Ezibu Muntu African Dance Company emerged as a community dance group performing in city cultural events — and even in a Dave Matthews Band music video. Shortly after their first meeting, Knight Lacy delivered on her promise and the group grew to 25 members. Dennis went to the VCU administration and asked if the university would sponsor the dance group as a student organization. VCU agreed and provided $2,000, Dennis said.
Practices took place at the Franklin Street Gym. Dennis choreographed the dances and made the costumes. After learning the proper dance technique, the group started performing for the public. “We ended up with a 26-member dance company — 20 dancers and six drummers,” Dennis said.
The group performed mostly in the Richmond community. While African dance was always the focus, Dennis wanted to try something new and introduced the company to a modern dance piece similar to a dance drama of the slave trade.
“Students adapted to the modern dance form very easily,” she said.
Before Dennis left VCU in 1975 to move back to California, she noticed that students in the dance group had built a strong community. “There was little that African Americans had for culture at that time,” she said. The group, she noted, served that purpose.
“It was during the civil rights time, and we needed something to keep us together,” Knight Lacy said. “That’s why a lot of Blacks joined fraternities and sororities. They were a home away from home.”
Passing the baton
After Dennis left VCU, Knight Lacy and Walker, a former VCU adjunct African dance instructor, took over the dance group. Walker served as choreographer, artistic director and general manager. Knight Lacy is now the group’s CEO.
The group incorporated to become a nonprofit organization in the early 1980s and left VCU. “We were located on Main Street for 27 years until the building was sold,” Knight Lacy said. “We moved to Southside and now we are temporarily in the east end of town. We are desperately looking for a permanent home for Ezibu Muntu.”
The company has grown and evolved over time, adding theater, music and education to its mission. It also teaches children about their African and African American culture.
The group’s performances are halted at the moment because of the pandemic. “We are doing virtual classes now,” Knight Lacy said.
Membership has ebbed and swelled over time. The group currently has 15 members that includes dancers and drummers. At its peak, the company had up to 65 members and performed in various places and at different events in the Richmond area. It was also asked to perform in the music video for the 1998 Dave Matthews Band song “Stay.”
“People get married, people move away and leave,” Knight Lacy said. “We are in the process of regrouping and reorganizing.”
One of her most memorable moments is when the group performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 2004.
“We were in New York for a week,” Knight Lacy said. “We did dance classes and had grueling rehearsals, from early morning to late evening. It was a wonderful experience to be able to dance up there with great companies. It was fantastic.”
Ezibu Muntu teaches and performs traditional West African dancing. Knight Lacy began heading the group after Walker passed away last year.
“She was the one that kept us together,” Knight Lacy said. “She was the glue. She kept us abreast of things. I am going to keep this going because Faye would want me to. Also, younger people in the group are stepping up and taking leadership roles.”
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