Dancing African Style

Marcus (left) and Levelle Robinson, founders of the Florida African Dance Festival, performed during the final night of the event.
Photo by Matthew Bell

Husband, wife duo brings quality of life event to Tallahassee

A Lee Hall audience was captivated by the African drummers.
Photo by Matthew Bell

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Mangue Sylla, an instructor with the Merveilles DeGuinee African dance troupe, could have been anywhere else than in Tallahassee this past weekend.
But for the past 17 years coming to the city for the Florida African Dance Festival has been on his must-do list.

“This is very important for me to come here and share my culture,” said Sylla, a Guinea native who lives in New York. “I’m very happy for this. The people enjoy us because they always get something from the performance on the stage.”

The same passion expressed by Sylla is what drives Jevelle and Marcus Robinson, founders of the event that bring hundreds of African dancers from Europe, South America and around the country ever year. The Robinsons have been putting on the event that has become part of the fiber of the city.

They celebrated their 24th year as promoters of the African culture in Tallahassee, the last 20 staging the Florida African Dance Festival. Year round they conduct weekly classes at the African Caribbean Dance Theater.

During the two-day festival, the Robinsons stage an exhibit of everything African – vendors, dancers and drummers on the opening day at the TCC Life Center. Spectators were treated to a preview of the headline show when one of the troupes went through a demonstration – drummers and all – inside the TCC gym.
Later in the evening, a high-energy show at Lee Hall held the packed venue spellbound for almost two hours.

The Tallahassee performers, led by the Robinsons, were a crowd favorite. After a dance that ran for about 15 minutes, the audience broke into a loud cheer.

Drummers at the Florida African Dance Festival came in all ages.

At one point a voice in the crowd asked, “You all feel that,” prompting another round of applauds.

“The people embrace it because it’s love first,” said Marie Basse Wiles, another of the dance instructors. “From the love I can see everybody developing themselves.”

Planning for next year’s event began long before this year’s event ended, said Jevelle. She has the role of handling the administrative duties from writing grants to marketing the event. Marcus takes care of the logistics.

They didn’t begin planning the festival without a roadmap. The couple attended as many older festivals as they could, bringing back the best of what they saw for their event.

They called on the Tourism Council for a grant and recruited volunteers. It became the only show of its kind in Florida at the time.

The couple focused on the educational aspects of African culture, setting off an awareness of what has become one of the most popular events in the city.

“It’s a sense of belonging, mostly African Americans,” Marcus said. “We have sense that African dance is for African people so this is the one thing they gravitate to.

“We involve ourselves in other dances, but this speaks for us in a way that no other dance does because it’s a part of who we are.”

Community acceptance was essential to the success, too. That was obvious by the cross-section of the audience at Saturday night’s concert.

“Our purpose has always been to enrich the lives of people that we come in contact with,” said Levelle. “When we got the buy-in from the community, it lent itself to having success.”

That success isn’t just what they do in Tallahassee. The Robinsons have won praise from across the country, Canada and South America.
Several of the performers call the festival the best they’ve attended.

“They really are passionate,” said Basse Wiles. “They have patience because it’s not easy to organize something like this. I really appreciate them.”

As the festival became a hit, the couple isn’t resting on their laurels. They are looking to make it bigger and better, Jevelle said.

“I guess with the passion and enthusiasm that Marcus and I have that doesn’t surprise me,” Jevelle said. “We love it so much.”