Chuck Davis, a dancer and choreographer widely regarded as America’s foremost master of African dance, died on Sunday at his home in Durham, N.C. He was 80.
His death was announced by the African American Dance Ensemble, which he founded in Durham in the early 1980s and directed until 2015. No cause was given.
Mr. Davis, who often said that he considered dance an agent of social change, performed, choreographed, taught and otherwise evangelized for the dances of Africa and the African diaspora for more than a half-century.
He was known both for his re-creations of traditional dances from throughout the African world and for his contemporary choreographed pieces that fused African traditions with modern dance.
Mr. Davis was most renowned as the founder and longtime artistic director of DanceAfrica, a festival held each Memorial Day weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Founded in 1977, the festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month.
DanceAfrica, a sprawling, multiday communal celebration, presents dancers and musicians from the United States, Africa and the diaspora, along with an outdoor bazaar selling African food and handicrafts. It has been reprised in cities throughout the United States.
Mr. Davis retired as DanceAfrica’s artistic director after the 2015 festival and was succeeded by Abdel R. Salaam. At his death, Mr. Davis was the festival’s artistic director emeritus. He leaves no immediate survivors.
His many laurels include two Bessie Awards, formally known as the New York Dance and Performance Awards and named for the dancer and choreographer Bessie Schonberg.
In 1999, the Dance Heritage Coalition chose Mr. Davis as one of the country’s hundred “irreplaceable dance treasures.” In 2016, the Brooklyn Academy of Music created the Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship, an annual award in his honor.
Mr. Davis had no illusions that the dances he presented on this side of the Atlantic were exact copies of the African originals, which he made plain in interviews.
“We try to show African dances accurately, but they’re theatrical presentations,” he told The Times in 2010. “Authenticity happens in the space and on the soil.”
He had learned an enduring lesson about authenticity long before, at the World’s Fair. After a Nigerian troupe was unable to appear there, Mr. Olatunji’s ensemble was slipped in as a covert replacement.
“We were told not to speak English,” Mr. Davis told The Raleigh News & Observer in 2015. “The songs we sang were in Yoruba, so we sang the songs to each other so no one could accuse us of not knowing the language.”
The jig was up, however, after a performance whose audience happened to include one Mrs. Hicks, Mr. Davis’s third-grade teacher from North Carolina.
“I came off the stage singing,” Mr. Davis recalled in the same interview. “And when I danced past Mrs. Hicks, she said: ‘Charles Davis, you’re not from Africa! You wait until I tell your mother!’ ”