American dancer, choreographer and renowned pioneer of modern dance, Martha Graham once said, "Dance is the hidden language of the soul."
Dorian Williams Byrd can relate. As founder, director and choreographer of Imani! Dancers & Studio for Cultural Arts Inc., Byrd has dedicated her entire life to dance. Once she steps onto center stage, Byrd unconsciously readies herself for what's to begin. It's as though dance is a part of her autonomic nervous system, that it's not only her language but it is her soul. "I feel as though I was born to dance," she said.
With a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance from Julliard and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Iowa, Byrd has taught dance at Augustana College, where she still teaches part time, since the 1980's. In 1989, while also teaching youngsters at Davenport's Junior Theatre, she was asked to give a dance performance at a Quad City Martin Luther King celebration. After that day, Byrd was asked to perform at a number of community events and Imani! was founded later that year (her Studio for Cultural Arts was formed in 2007). Besides teaching at Augustana and running her dance studio and company, she's also an enrichment instructor for Davenport public school's Stepping Stones after-school program.
Byrd's love for dance and connecting with people from different cultures has taken her around the world. Her students and audiences are the fortunate recipients of her varied background in classical, modern, ethnic and folk/traditional dance, as well as choreography, theater, storytelling and costume design.
Appearing athletic and fit at 64 years old — even with two hip replacements — in the dance room, located at the Roosevelt Community Center in Davenport where the Imani! Dancers & Studio for Cultural Arts, Inc. is located, Byrd explained Imani! "Our name means 'faith' in Swahili, which reflects our desire to do all to the glory of God, whether our dance themes are sacred or secular."
Dance classes are offered three nights a week for children four years old through adults. While her sessions vary, this fall Byrd and four other studio teachers taught ballet, hip-hop "creative combo" (which is ballet and tap), and Afro-modern. She also is holding auditions for her Imani! Dancers Ensemble, which performs throughout the year at various community events. The dance company rehearses Sunday afternoons and apprentice dancers are required to take lessons through Imani! Dancers Studio.
During a one-hour Afro-modern dance class, she explained dance a bit further: "In modern dance we use the floor, the torso, the body ... whereas in ballet you have a codified body of movement." The Afro-modern dance class is just that — a combination of modern dance ("but easy on the joints," Byrd said) with African influence. Her relaxed style of teaching is perfect for anyone with the proverbial two left feet. Students follow as Byrd leads and instructs. She leaves plenty of room for improvising and missteps that are bound to happen.
Linda Van Houtte, one of Byrd's faithful students for at least eight years, considers what dance has meant for her. "I think something that makes you feel good is important to your soul."
The Imani! Dancers Ensemble will be performing at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 28 at a Kwanzaa celebration held at the Martin Luther King Center, 630 7th Ave., Rock Island. Admission is free, though attendees are encouraged to bring canned goods to donate. For more information about the performance, call (309) 292-3306. More information about Dorian Byrd and the Imani! Dancers Ensemble can be found at imanidancersstudio.com.