Members have come and gone, but current co-directors Lateefah Kituku and Anita Lilly have stuck with it since those heady early days, and both continue to dance and perform.
The group celebrated its 16th anniversary recently with a free evening-long celebration that drew an animated crowd of nearly 500 to the Woodward High School auditorium. Bracketed by traditional libations, colorful vendors and a raucous finale involving current and past members, it was a program of scrupulously traditional drumming and dancing from Senegal-Gambia and the Guinea region of West Africa, showcasing especially the group's accomplished children and young adults.
Typically, the group performs locally two or three times each month. In February, a scout for The Jenny Jones Show saw them at the Kenwood Towne Centre during the Fine Arts Fund Sampler Weekend. Two weeks later, the kids were whisked to NBC's Chicago studios, where they were taped for a guest appearance on the national talk show.
What does it all mean? In conversations sandwiched between their busy days spent teaching -- Kituku and Lilly are also teachers in the Cincinnati Public Schools -- rehearsing, mentoring and performing, "Mamas" Anita and Lateefah (with input from music director Terah Israel and choreographers Ifetayu Judkins and Lisa Rogers) recently gave their own insights into the history of the vibrant company, ages 660, the culture it celebrates and the powerful family ethos underpinning the whole endeavor.
"I guess I was always involved with cultural studies," remembers Lilly, who minored in African-American studies at the University of Cincinnati.
Today, the AADDE offers free classes to company members. "Parents, sisters, brothers," she says. "It's free to them also."
The group does charge for performances, but the directors still don't pay themselves. "We put the money back into the kitty to give to the kids," Lilly says, "to make the company work and to take them on trips."
Kituku, who hails from South Philadelphia, ended up in the Midwest after she finished college in Atlanta and took a job in Middletown. She eventually married -- she has four children, two boys in college and two girls still at home -- and moved to Cincinnati.
"I started dancing when I was 7," she says. "I learned dances from a Haitian, Mr. Pratt. He had seven children himself, and after he'd teach us for hours at the community center, he would put us all in his car and take us to his house and feed us. We'd stay there all evening ... I was from a small family, and it was great fun."
It was natural for her to continue the tradition. "It was done for me, it was easy for me to do it for someone else," she says.
Kituku's own large house in Walnut Hills is "kinda like the meeting place. I have two teenagers living at home. There is always a lot of activity over here." Her godson, Awrie, currently studying in Chicago, has performed professionally with Muntu Dance Theater and regularly returns to Cincinnati to teach and perform as a guest artist.
Terah Israel has long dreadlocks and a confident, quiet manner -- until he hits the skins. With his sons Ethan and Nazia and other guest drummers, he's not only responsible for directing the many intricate rhythms, but he performs the role of lead drummer.
"That's the drum that marks the steps of the dancers," he says. "I also play the breaks (cues for rhythm changes) that will bring about the change of different movements and also rhythms."
His sons complete the djembe (the ubiquitous West African hand drum) orchestra. Ethan, Israel's younger son, often plays with another guest. "They play the different parts, to bring about the harmony of the music," Israel says.
Israel's older son Nazia plays bottom drums (the jun-jun, fondba and kikini), standing and using sticks. Israel got his first lesson from former AADDE member Ojinga Khamesi. "He noticed right away I had timing. I continued to play, and it brought me up to this point. I continue for more than just physical reasons, there's a lot of spirituality to drumming."
Though Ife Judkins now has her own company, Bánekhukalé ("Children's Happiness") based at the Corryville Recreation Center, she also grew up with AADDE and returned for the celebration as dancer, choreographer and costume designer -- quite a job, with 80 separate costumes to be sewn. Her students become part of her own family, just as AADDE became her extended family.
"I came from a group home," she says. "The dancing gave me focus. I felt I was needed, cuddled, loved, nurtured."
Dancer and choreographer Lisa Rogers, also second-generation AADDE, puts it quite succinctly. A natural dancer and leader since high school, she's very happy to work with the company. "I am. Because I like to dance. Period. And I like the African dance. If people don't applaud and look interested, we still do our best. But ... if everybody applauds ... it makes you smile more. It makes you feel more happier." ©