Local Dancer Turned Living Legend
In her youth, Mariama Curry loved to dance but dreamt about becoming a civil rights lawyer. It was only after heading to college to follow her dream of jurisprudence that she finally realized that her true passion was dance.
“Watching Mariama dance or a choreographed piece of hers is like lightning meeting a rainbow,” says her friend and actress Karen kaia Livers.
On Friday, Jan. 22, Curry will be honored by the Center for African and African American Studies at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) and will receive the 2021 Living Legend Award. The virtual ceremony will be from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the SUNO webpage.
“It is always wonderful when your people and community recognize your contributions to the community,” she says. “I’m excited and grateful. I’ve dedicated my life to teaching the community the beautiful cultures of Africa, exposing them to the true masters of our craft.”
Early in her dance career, Curry studied under renowned local teachers and choreographers Greer Goff Mendy and Lula Elzy. She later joined the Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective and began teaching African folklore.
Curry would go on to found Culu Children’s Traditional African Dance Company in 1988 and N’Kafu Traditional African Dance Company a year later.
Her CULU co-founders, Zohar Israel and Abdoulaye Camara, created the company for youth between the ages of 5 and 18 who were interested in being educated in the art of traditional African dance and drumming.
“Culu is a Mandinka word that means ‘discipline,”’ she says. “We wanted to prepare students to enter colleges and other institutions. We also wanted to expose them to African culture — everything from drums to the food and clothing of Africa.”
Culu has performed throughout the years at various events/venues, including The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Umoja Children’s Festival, and Essence Festival.
N’Kafu Traditional African Dance Company was founded by Curry out of her pure love and passion of African traditions. It is dedicated to the research, historical documentation, preservation, presentation and promotion of African folklore.
“Translated as ‘come together’ in the Mandinka language, [the company was founded to bring together and educate the community,” says Curry. The company has 12 members who have been together for six years.
Over the years, Curry has traveled frequently to the West African nations of Guinea, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, where she has focused on learning their cultures and traditions, especially when it comes to dancing and music.
“Mariama is a stellar shaman and griot who is among the most passionate, dancer/anthropologists I have ever seen,” says Donald Edward Lewis, actor and long-time friend. “I think she and Zora Neale Hurston would have been fast friends!”
Some of the dances and African cultural traditions she teaches and performs date back to the 14th century Mali Empire of Mansa Musa and were handed down as oral histories by tribal griots, or storytellers.
“My dream has always been to expose the community to the cultures of Africa,” says Curry. “I’m always trying to bring people into places where they can sit down and get an education firsthand from master drummers and dancers. I’m always learning.”
Curry encourages everyone interested in learning more about Africa and African dance to come to her classes and her companies’ performances. The African dance classes are held at the Treme Cultural Arts Center at 900 North Villere St., on Fridays at 5:30 p.m. for children and adults and Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. for children only. Everyone is welcome.
She’s also active in her community in other ways. This weekend she is participating in the Louisiana State Chapter of The Black Panther Party’s “Blanket Drive for The Homeless.”
“In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, we are giving the homeless thermal blankets, along with a bag of fruit, water and sandwiches,” Curry says.
Her group will be preparing the bags to give away this Sunday at 2514 Louisiana Ave., and then they will meet at 10:00 a.m. on Jan.18, at 2514 Louisiana Ave., to start on the journey to pass out the blankets.
“If you would like to be a part of this, we welcome you,” she says.
Curry is also welcoming any donations toward the effort. Those interested can contact her at (504) 430-0894.