EDITOR’S NOTE: Tickets to tonight’s show are still available. You can purchase tickets here.
Harambee Dance Company’s Oct. 6 MOJA show, Origin, isn’t just another dance performance. It is an act of coming home.
“On a personal level, this is a homecoming for us, coming back to Charleston,” said Sandella Malloy, artistic director of Harambee Dance Company, which is based in New York and Atlanta. “There are a lot of people in that city that have poured into us — that have been inspirational in our lives. And being able to come back home and connect with them also is something special.”
Sandella and her husband and partner Frank Malloy are Charleston natives. Frank and Sandella were high school sweethearts, having attended what is now James Island Charter High School. After graduating from College of Charleston, Frank entered the Peace Corps in 1988 and went to Ghana in western Africa.
“That was where I first got interested in African music and dance,” said Frank, who serves as Harambee’s executive director. Sandella joined him in Ghana. There, the duo learned firsthand the traditional African dance styles that have become the calling card of their company.
Coming home … and leaving again
They returned to Charleston in 1992 as husband and wife, and opened a gallery and art store on King Street. Two years later, they founded Harambee Dance Company, with Sandella handling choreography and Frank playing music.
“Fortunately and unfortunately, we started branching out,” said Frank. “We started traveling because we were really motivated and inspired to reach as many artists as possible and to learn as much as possible.”
This branching out led the company to relocate to New York City in 1996, where they have remained for over 20 years. During the pandemic, they also took their dance company to Atlanta, Georgia, and have maintained the two companies since. But there has always been a desire to come back to where it all started.
“That is a long time to want to do a hometown gig and not have it happen,” said Frank. Harambee Dance Company did not return to Charleston for a performance until 2019, when it celebrated its 25th anniversary with a show at their old high school on James Island. Being in town for that show and meeting city arts officials laid the groundwork for this year’s big performance at MOJA. “So we are just doing cartwheels every day.”
This year’s show
Origin digs deep into the rich traditions of African and African-American dance and music, as well as speaking directly to the experiences and history of the Malloy family, which includes son and musical director Frankie Malloy. Sandella’s choreography draws on African-based movement, modern dance, original music and live percussion, and the show includes storytelling aspects, too.
“There’s just a lot of history, a lot of culture in Charleston,” said Sandella. It was only upon arriving in West Africa that she realized just how much African heritage was present in the Charleston culture of her youth. From the food to the basket weaving, so many things she recognized from her childhood had its roots in Ghana. “Growing up in Charleston, I really didn’t understand that I was living African culture.”
Origin features five pieces and runs about an hour and a half. The pieces cover stories of religion, the 1970s, ancestral daughters and the division of families. The settings are mostly contemporary, but draw on deep cultural history. The 25-member ensemble will also feature some local talent joining onstage.
“Origin really is about our roots,” said Sandella. “So what you’re going to see is our roots, but you’re also going to see an extension of those roots where you see a more contemporary format.”
Frankie Malloy looks to his parents for inspiration for the show’s original musical compositions.
“I like to consider myself and the music that I compose a representation of my parent’s vision and experiences growing up,” he said. “So you’re gonna see some traditional West African percussive instruments.
“You’re going to see some Western instruments in the form of bass and keys. You’re gonna see a beautiful marriage of all of our musical experiences, all of our musical backgrounds.”
His father, Frank Malloy, sees a deeper meaning to Origin in its title and its purpose right now.
“Everything that we’re doing now is a result of people pouring their heart and souls into us. We would not be doing what we’re doing now if things did not originate there in Charleston. We are so grateful to be from the South. To be from Charleston.”
The Malloys are looking forward to seeing friends and family, and performing for all those people who helped shape their journey. They’re also excited to share their performance style to Charleston’s audiences for what, hopefully, won’t be the last time.
“It’s gonna be a grand time on that stage,” said Sandella. “It’s gonna be a party on the stage. We’ll all be there.”
Harambee Dance Company presents Origin on Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. at the Dock Street Theatre. Tickets are $25.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit mojafestival.com.
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