When I was 10 years old, my mother took me to Newark Symphony Hall to see the legendary Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe. Athletic and atypical yet graceful and gifted, the dancers defied standard models of modern dance. Many of the dancers were either too tall or too muscular, but in every capacity they could pirouette as wistfully as Anna Pavlova, gyrate as provocatively as Josephine Baker and leap as high as Catwoman. Their skill and stage presence was astounding, and from that moment, I wanted to be a dancer. A few weeks after seeing them perform, my mother enrolled me in jazz dance and ballet classes. I think I lasted two weeks.
It didn’t take long to realize dancing wasn’t my forte at that age. I was gangly, tall and insanely insecure. But even as I grew older and discovered other areas in which I could excel, I never forgot or lost respect for the beauty and mystique of modern dance.
This past weekend — exactly 17 years later — I had the opportunity to see Alvin Ailey Dance perform at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. It was the first trip back to New Orleans for the famous New York-based dance troupe since Katrina. And it was the first time I’d seen pieces of the repertory, live, since that evocative experience years ago. For much of the performance, I sat awash in a flood of emotions — awe, nostalgia, regret, homesickness. I missed my mother. I wondered what would have happened if I’d stuck with dance. And I compared the rhythmic physicality and spiritualism of the second act (“Episodes” by Ulysses Dove) with the dances that used to take place at Congo Square more than a century ago and thought about how spectacular it probably was to see a full congregation of dancers and musicians imbibed in celebration.
After the show, the hubby and I strolled around to look at the majestically lit fountains and grounds in Louis Armstrong Park — taking care not to stray too far into the darkness. When we returned home later that night, I was all fired up again, much like the night I saw Alvin Ailey years ago as a young girl. Only this time, I was more intrigued by the history of Armstrong Park and its surrounding areas.
“How cool would it be to have an open-air festival and weekly concerts at Congo Square,” I asked the hubby as he tried to go to sleep.
“Pretty cool, I guess … though I doubt you’re the first to think of it,” he replied.
And of course, as so often is the case, he was right. Apparently there’s a two-day festival held at the park in November — the Congo Square Rhythm Festival. We didn’t even know about it. Even so, there should definitely be more taking place in Armstrong Park, maybe more markets and festivals. Jazz Fest first started out in the ‘70s at the park; perhaps a new festival can get its start there.
There are potential problems with opening up the park to the public: It’s not located in a particularly safe area, and its upkeep probably requires extra funding and a dedicated workforce. But I wonder if it is too expensive to open it up during daylight on Saturdays? The park is such a beautiful and historic place, as it’s home to the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, the New Orleans Auditorium, Mahalia Jackson Theater, pretty lagoons and open spaces.
I have a djembe drum and, as you now know, I like dance. How about a dance festival at Congo Square?
Here some pictures from Louis Armstrong Park: