Adenike Sharpley always knew she wanted to be a choreographer. So it came as no surprise to anyone that by the age of 16 she was teaching dance and by 21 she was directing a troupe.
The Cleveland native began her dancing career at the age of three, and while she started out in classical ballet, she later transitioned into the modern dance and Afro-modern styles during her teenage years.
After stints studying under mentors at Spelman College and Cuyahoga County Community College, her lifelong passion for dance eventually led her to Oberlin College to teach.
As founder and director of Dance Diaspora, a semi-professional touring West African dance ensemble, and the college’s artist-in-residence of Africana studies, Sharpley has been a fixture on campus for 28 years. With her retirement at the conclusion of this academic year, Dance Diaspora will reach the end of its 25-year run.
Formed in 1992, Dance Diaspora was created to offer the Africana student community an opportunity to develop art and cultural performance skills. For Sharpley, the impetus for the group’s formation was really the students.
“There were lots of students who had dance training when they arrived at Oberlin,” said Sharpley. “But they wanted more professional training, and they really wanted to learn African dance.” So she formed the troupe to offer the students the specific experiences they desired.
While at its helm, Sharpley thoughtfully incorporated dance styles and cultural traditions from a broad range of countries throughout the African diaspora, including Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, the Republic of Gambia, and the American South, among others. The program sought to be representative of traditional West African Dance and other African diasporic dance forms. While achieving this, the group also strove for inclusivity among its members and welcomed all gender identities, ethnicities, and body types.
According to Rashida Bumbray, choreographer and director of Dance Diaspora Collective, the program is rare in the dance community.
“The program that Adenike has created is quite unique and unparalleled in the American dance landscape. You don’t find this depth and breadth of material and the paradigm which connects them all anywhere in higher education or elsewhere,” said Bumbray. “As a dancer leaving her program, you are aware of how rich your training is when you get into the world.”
Dance Diaspora not only exposed students to African dance and performance, but it also made a priority of community service through performance. “Our number one goal was to do community service — especially in the early days,” said Sharpley.
This service-focused mindset was often a catalyst for many of the group’s performances in schools, prisons, and other communities. The group performed at the Detroit Museum, Marietta College, and Georgia State, and traveled to Cleveland, Elyria, and Lorain public schools among others, said Sharpley. It also went to under-served communities in rural Kentucky.
On campus, Dance Diaspora also provided many students a comfortable place to call home.
“I got a lot of the kids who fell through the cracks,” said Sharpley. “A lot of them were first-generation college students or artists. I picked up a lot of the kids who just didn’t fit. I guess because it was like a family, and we did everything together.”
The mentorship component of the group was valuable to many members, including Bumbrary. “Adenike is my most important mentor,” said Bumbray. “What she has done for me, and so many, is to see us before we see ourselves and understand our own power. She nurtures this power through her program, which asks each student to excavate their own past—and make connections to their ancestral legacies.”
When looking back on her decades managing Dance Diaspora, Sharpley has fond memories. “It was great working with the kids—it was a student-driven group. And as long as they wanted it, I did it.”
Dance Diaspora’s final performance took place on March 4. Its production of “Black Love: The Incarceration of the Spirit” was the final chapter in the troupe’s long run on campus.
Note: This piece was provided by Oberlin College and was edited for style.