Mama Dr. Lynette White-Mathews

[Mama Dr. Lynette White-Mathews, 2022]
Photographer: Tony Turner
BAM Affiliation An Elder’s Journey
This Elder’s journey began in 1965 at Bernice Johnson’s Dance Studio (BJ’s) in Jamaica, NY. I had studied dance from the age of six, but was unprepared for what would follow—I was introduced to the tallest man alive, at least up close. (Years later I realized I had seen him at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, dancing what would become one of the company’s signature pieces). This man was Baba Chuck Davis. He lit a fire inside of me to compete and excel. I was invited to join the Senior Dance Group, my first taste as a performer. We worked hard, taking classes two nights a week and Saturday and Sunday. I looked forward to those days where a mistake would be followed by a large sneaker being lobbed across the room at you. I lived in dance euphoria until June of 1969 when I learned that my beloved teacher was leaving BJ’s. As fate, and years of training, would have it, I received a dance scholarship to attend New York University’s School of Education. During an afternoon break in September 1969, I ran into Baba Chuck on 8th Street. We hugged and he told me about a three-hour dance class he was teaching at Minisink Townhouse in upper Manhattan. The fire inside of me was back. We sang the rhythms of the drum, and without a care, while waiting for trains and buses, performed for free as we practiced what we learned, anticipating what would come the next week.

Baba Chuck’s company was scheduled to perform that November. Imagine my surprise and joy when he invited me to join his company. This leg of the journey would become a cornerstone for my life’s work. I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my relatively short life, going to school as a full time student, taking Baba Chuck’s classes (mandatory for members), and rehearsals all weekend. Once again we “performed” for other New York City transit travelers as we used every available moment to commit the steps to muscle memory. During the next nine years, under Baba Chuck’s supervision, I found my artistic voice which melded with my affinity for teaching. I learned how to reach and teach both adults and children, and how to use dance as a means of healing. Through my work with the company, I met and collaborated with people across the country.

The final leg of the journey began in June of 1977 at BAM. Baba Chuck’s dream of an African dance extravaganza—DanceAfrica—came to fruition. I was excited as we prepared to show the world that an all-African Dance concert was not only possible but was and is as viable as any other form. A few years later Baba Chuck invited some of his dancers, musicians, and others to become the Council of Elders for DanceAfrica. It was a group representative of a code of conduct mirroring the respect given to Elders back home in Africa. I learned not only what I thought it meant to be an Elder, but how to be an Elder. For this, I thank my mentor Baba Chuck for inviting me into this group, and my peers, who helped me navigate how to be an Elder without reaching the typical age. Along with other new Elders, I feel I earned a place on the Council from years of experience under Baba Chuck’s tutelage and our impact on the community. I thank my parents who gave me the necessary elements to embrace the opportunity of meeting and working with a most wonderful group of individuals.

Thank you, Baba Chuck, for all that you have given me. May I always make you, the ancestors, and the Council of Elders proud.
—Mama Lynette White-Mathews