When Rod Rodgers and his dance company toured five African nations as cultural emissaries for the United States a few years ago, they were amazed by how much the contributions of black Americans had touched the people of Africa.
"For example, few people know that Langston Hughes is credited with establishing the national library system in Senegal," Rodgers said. "Or that W.E.B. Du Bois is a cultural hero in Nigeria. Or that buildings and streets all over Africa are named after Martin Luther King."
Inspired by the revelations of that tour, Rodgers, a teacher and choreographer, created a series of tributes dramatizing the struggles and celebrating the accomplishments of leading black Americans.
Tonight at 8, the Rod Rodgers Dance Co. will perform segments of its acclaimed "Poets & Peacemakers" series in the University Theater at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson.
This afternoon, Rodgers and members of his multiethnic ensemble will be conducting dance classes for students at the university, said Corol Tubbs, coordinator of the university's dance program.
Founded 23 years ago in New York City and still based there, the company has toured extensively, performing before a variety of audiences, Rodgers said.
His dancers combine the techniques of jazz, ballet and modern dance with Rodgers' unique form of contemporary rhythm dances in which dancers create their own music with bells, cymbals, claves and sticks.
Tonight's program includes "Ictus," a representative rhythm dance in which dancers use sticks and poles to provide their musical accompaniment.
The bulk of the program, however, will feature artistic tributes to Duke Ellington, Harriet Tubman and Hughes.
Rodgers said he chose figures who have symbolized and inspired different aspects of the black experience.
"When we talk about celebrating the creative struggle of black Americans, we extend that to include not just struggles for freedom and social change, but also struggles to create innovative works," he said.
"Echoes of Ellington" pays homage to the musical heritage of jazz as expressed by one of its legends. "Keep on Goin' " honors the courage and sacrifice of Tubman, who guided hundreds of slaves to freedom through her underground railroad. "Langston Lives" celebrates the writer, whose poetry captured the sights, sounds and rhythms of the lives of blacks in urban America.
The "Poets & Peacemakers" series also includes tributes to King and George Washington Carver.
The company "tries to convey certain messages of the African-American struggle through dance, messages that have to do with deliverance and basic civil rights," said Rudy Vanterpool, a professor of philosophy and chair of the university's African-American History Month Committee.
"These dances and themes they convey are a universal expression with a universal flavor," he said.
What: Performance by the Rod Rodgers Dance Co.
Where: University Theater, Cal State Dominguez Hills, 1000 E. Victoria St., Carson.
When: Tonight at 8.
Admission: Tickets are $10 at the door, $8 for students.
Information: Call (310) 516-3955.