Adebola & Jeaunita Olowe,
Bi-Okoto Cultural Institute
Bi-Okoto Drum & Dance Theatre
Interviewed at their studio by Sandra Grady
23 April 2011

Bi-Okoto Cultural Institute in Cincinnati is the home base for the performance and educational programs founded by Adebola Olowe, an immigrant to Cincinnati from Nigeria. The name comes from the spinning top of perfection that Yoruba depict in a plate dance that is performed as a rite of passage within certain ethnic groups. In it, women demonstrate the balance of life that is needed in adulthood by spinning glass plates on their heads, necks, lower backs and hands while dancing.

Adebola Olowe came to Cincinnati in 1989 as part of a Nigerian dance group called Oduchiala, which had been founded by his father and toured across a number of continents. The group disbanded during this tour, and Adebola decided to continue his studies at the University of Cincinnati. While he was there, he discovered a strong need to educate Americans about Africa in all its diversity, so he reassembled interested artists from the original Nigerian group, and also held open auditions for dancers in February 1995. As it turned out, the auditions were hampered by a severe snow storm. Rather than discouraging Adebola, he recognized that those who arrived to audition despite the snow storm were highly committed to learning and performing African dance, so he accepted all of them into the troupe. One of their earliest performances was at the opening of the Aronoff Center. Adebola’s goal was to create a drum and dance company that tied to their performances in a larger African context so that the audience would learn about the African cultures represented in the music rather than simply entertain. Performers in the company dance, drum, sing, and teach. Adebola continues to choreograph performances.

One of these early performers was a native Cincinnatian who worked for the Cincinnati Ballet, Jeaunita Weathersby. Because of her connection with the ballet company, the nascent Bi-Okoto was housed there and relied on all volunteers. In time, Jeaunita and Adebola married, and the company expanded and eventually settled in Bond Hill in Cincinnati, where it has its own performance space, studios, costume and drum repair facilities, a recording space, conference room, and gallery. It has also grown to employ a staff of around 13 people, as well as using contract performers. The focus of the company remains on education, and Bi-Okoto puts on programs for schools, churches, and various other audiences. It operates two or three tour runs in the US with four artists in each troupe, and has also travelled to Europe to teach and perform for the Department of Defense. It maintains a relationship with the National Troupe of Nigeria and the Ivory Ambassadors, from which they routinely recruit artists to perform with them,.

Given the background of the original performers, Bi-Okoto initially West African dances, but over time they have expanded their offerings to dances from East and Central Africa, and have begun to include dances from the larger African diaspora, specifically Brazil. In addition to their performances, the center offers language classes in the Hausa, Yoruba, and Twi languages from West Africa, as well as cooking, visual arts, and sewing classes. Adebola currently serves as Artistic & Executive Director, while Jeaunita is the Company Manager.

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