Away from the comfort of Zoellner Arts Center and crowds filled with their friends and classmates, Lehigh’s African-inspired dance group, African Renaissance, traveled to Philadelphia to perform for the first time off campus at AfroFest on Sept. 30.
The cultural dance group started at Lehigh five years ago, and although the club is not recognized by the university, African Renaissance is in the process of petitioning to gain official Lehigh club recognition.
“When we started out, we didn’t know where the dance group would go, or if people would even buy into the idea of African dance,” African Renaissance co-founder Ashoka Singh, ’18, said.
Since its inception, African Renaissance has gained about 50 to 60 members who participate in weekly dance practices on Saturdays in Zoellner Arts Center.
“When people hear about Lehigh, they don’t really think about our diverse campus,” Singh said. “African Renaissance is bringing a new thing to Lehigh’s campus – culture through African dance.”
The dance group’s regular performances include annual events like Dancefest and Fusion and fundraisers like Relay for Life, where they perform with other Lehigh dance groups.
African Renaissance group members first learned about AfroFest through former African Renaissance president Freddy Coleman, ’17, who knew the AfroFest organizer. Coleman worked on the promotional team for AfroFest.
The word spread about AfroFest after the event’s promotional team reached out to the African dance community through social media. The event quickly gained the attention of several dance groups from universities in the tri-state area.
AfroFest held a social media contest that allowed African dance groups from college campuses to submit a dance video to Instagram. The top three videos with the most views, comments and likes were chosen to perform at AfroFest. Ultimately, Lehigh, the University of Delaware and Temple University were the three universities chosen to perform at AfroFest, which had an audience of nearly a thousand people.
“It was such a long process, even just asking all of our family and friends to go like the video, which was submitted to Instagram months ago,” African Renaissance member Paige Hapeman, ’19, said. “Once we were actually there and rehearsing backstage, I was kind of like, ‘Wow, OK, take a deep breath — you’re here.'”
These three groups were the only African Dance groups to perform at AfroFest. Meanwhile, in between performances, DJs played each set to a different style of music.
“Being able to see how other schools perform — oh my gosh, yeah, that was definitely the highlight for me,” African Renaissance member Emem Uko, ’20, said. “I’m African, so I appreciated that everyone in the other dance groups were African — you could see that they were really trying to be as authentic as possible. We were the most diverse group out of all of them.”
Uko also enjoyed the DJ’s final set, which incorporated Nigerian music to celebrate Nigerian Independence Day at midnight.
Although the event took place in Philadelphia, many members of the Lehigh community, including the Step Team and Indian Students Association, traveled to AfroFest to show their support for the African Renaissance members, who invited alumni to perform with them.
Singh said several Lehigh alumni who work in the Philadelphia area attended the show.
Uko said performing off campus provided a large cultural community in the audience, with mostly African attendees at the event.
“We were also used to performing in front of the Lehigh community,” Hapeman said. “Our friends and family still came out to support us in Philly, but it was different because we were just used to performing in front of more people that we knew.”
African Renaissance performed all original choreography in their set, aside from one dance cover.
“One thing about dancing is that you put hours and hours of work into practicing all for a few minutes on stage,” Singh said. “In that moment I was really proud – I never envisioned African Renaissance making it off campus. It all came together for us at AfroFest.”