In the spirit of Christmas

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s seasonal offering

 By Arnecia Patterson


In December, the streets of downtown Dayton are lined with decorations, and a perfectly shaped Christmas tree reigns over the branches of Courthouse Plaza’s fairy-lighted saplings. Most weekends, the marquees of surrounding theaters announce music and dance offerings staged by area arts organizations for families and visitors to enjoy. This season brings a welcome and unique addition to the downtown Dayton arts scene with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s (DCDC’s) In The Spirit Of … Behold His Holy Name. 

Now in its seventh season, the seasonal performance features DCDC dancers in choreography by company members DeMarcus Akeem, Qarriannne Blayr, Marlayna Locklear, Amy Jones and Nabachwa Ssensalo; former dancer Crystal Michelle Perkins, DCDC 2 Director Shonna Hickman Matlock and Artistic Director Debbie Blunden-Diggs, and live music and dance that culls musicians, singers and liturgical dancers from as far away as Cincinnati.

More than a dozen songs of holiday gospel, Christmas carols and seasonal R&B will be performed by the Deron Bell Band, under the direction of Deron Bell, who will also conduct the 50-voice mass choir. National recording artist Shirley Murdock will perform, as well. DCDC’s Christmas concert In The Spirit Of … Behold His Holy Name fuses concert dance and live music that evoke aspects of the area’s African American gospel roots and the season’s praise nature.

Based on its founding in the African American tradition, gospel and praise are fair ground for DCDC to hone into a celebratory showcase of live entertainment. Blunden-Diggs has chosen songs that do more than get listeners in the holiday mood; Christmas songs like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Joy to the World” stand as inspirational metaphors in African American history, while “Little Drummer Boy” and “O Holy Night” are heard in jazz, blues and R&B arrangements during December.

In this year’s production, it is the unique arrangement of those oft heard tunes that connect them to the African American tradition of inspirational gospel. Deron Bell returns as music director for the show – he selects the arrangements, rehearses the choir and band and conducts the performances. Bell has been with the production since 2009 and directed its music in cities on tour with the company.

Bell, a Dayton native and leader of the Deron Bell Band, a special events entertainment band, considers inspirational music to be his niche. He believes that melody, instrumentation and arrangement are keys to unearthing emotions and tends to go for music that is encouraging and inspiring.

“A good secular song can be inspirational with the right lyric content,” said Bell. He received his first awareness of musical arrangement as a teen who participated in a Dayton Philharmonic concert with his church band. “When I was 14, Isaiah Jackson was the music director of Dayton Philharmonic, and he visited our church and selected our band to perform. We performed their orchestral arrangements of our compositions on stage with them. That exposure and experience opened my eyes. It took me beyond where I was, musically, at the age of 14. I never turned back from that point on.”

For Nabachwa Ssensalo, a DCDC dancer and one of the featured choreographers, inspiration is gleaned from personal narrative and a need to realize the movement she sees when she hears gospel music.

“When I listen to music in church, I see movement all the time,” said Ssensalo. Even though she professes a level of anxiety as she wades deeper into choreographic waters – this is the fourth In The Spirit Of … for which she has provided a work – nerves are for all of the right reasons. “I want to keep the quality standard of DCDC alive. I want to do it justice.”

Ssensalo has the challenge of working with dancers of all ages in her piece – from 15 to 50 years old – and all skill levels – professionals from DCDC, dancers from DCDC 2 and community dancers from Vessels of Honour and the dance ministry of Zion Global Ministries. She dances in her work as well. “It seemed appropriate, since it’s my story. I’m getting more comfortable with letting people see who I am,” Ssensalo said.

With a blend of pedestrian movement, modern dance and African-inspired movement, Ssensalo hopes that she has showcased each dancer to bear out the characterizations that people the dance, yet admits that style is just a vehicle for the emotional resonance that she wants the audience to experience when it sees the work.

In The Spirit Of … Behold His Holy Name emboldens the Christmas season with music and dance reflective of the company’s roots and the city’s contemporary diversity. DCDC’s hallmark of professionalism may outshine the lights of Courthouse Plaza’s trees. The intent of artists Deron Bell and Nabachwa Ssensalo is to elicit feeling from the audience through a melding of styles that behold the holiday season.


In The Spirit Of… Behold His Holy Name will be performed on Saturday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4 p.m. at the Dayton Convention Center, 22 E. Fifth St. For ticket information, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or 888.228.3630, or visit For more information about DCDC, please visit


Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at


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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at

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