Jamal Jackson ’00 discovered African dance on a whim at age twelve, when he signed up for a school class. It wasn’t long before he was traveling every weekend from his Brooklyn home to Harlem to train with a children’s performance group dedicated to the energetic, drum-driven style.“I just fell in love with it,” he says. “When you feel that live music in your chest, with the bass of the dun dun and the djembe? It was just very inviting.”
More than two decades later, Jackson is still passionate about the dance form—and committed to finding new ways to keep those traditions alive and relevant. As artistic director of the Brooklyn-based Jamal Jackson Dance Company, he’s established a reputation for blending classic Malian movements with hip-hop and other contemporary techniques, a fusion intended to show audiences the connection between African and American cultures.
Jackson’s routines have been presented around the world, including at Central Park’s SummerStage concert series, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires, and the Abundance International Dance Festival in Karlstad, Sweden. “It’s a lot of syncopated footwork, with a looseness in the torso and big flowing arms,” he says of his choreography. “And I’m really into surprising people with rhythmic structure. If I can see your counts on stage, that’s extremely boring to me.”
Jackson’s pieces are more than beautiful stagecraft, though. They often tackle racial and social issues. In 2015, in a work titled The People Vs., he used the O.J. Simpson murder trial as a way to examine the fairness of the U.S. legal system. “For us, it’s about pushing boundaries and taking steps into the unknown,” Jackson says. Part of the company’s mission is also to build self-confidence in young people through dance workshops at local schools, churches, and community outreach programs. “I want kids to get up there and say, ‘I’m going to take a risk,’” he says. “That’s the first step towards saying you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
Jackson knows about that firsthand. He became a principal dancer with Harlem’s Batoto Yetu Dance Company while still in high school, performing at the United Nations and on Sesame Street. “We were dancing with Elmo and getting kids to learn about Angolan culture,” he recalls.
At Brown, Jackson began as a geology/biology concentrator, aiming toward a career as a marine biologist. He refocused on dance in his junior year, heading the student-led Fusion Dance Company and creating pieces for the University’s New Works/World Traditions troupe—contributions that earned him a Weston Fine Arts Award. He spent the summer of 1999 in Mali to further his African dance studies, an experience that helped solidify his decision to dance professionally. “That was a big turning point in my life,” he says.
After graduation, Jackson moved back to New York City, where he danced with Ballet International Africans and for club singer Inaya Day before founding his own company in 2004. Moving forward, with a September gig scheduled at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan’s Public Theater, he hopes his work will continue to inspire and provoke. “For me, the most important thing, whether it’s dance or something else,” he says, “is that you need to make your voice heard.”