Dancing for Black History

How do you get an auditorium filled with noisy and antsy elementary school students to become as quiet as mice?

The answer is easy; invite the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers to perform.

The African Heritage Dancers and Drummers is a group of performers who play instruments, dance and sing at schools, churches, community centers, and special events.

Students at Smothers Elementary School saw the dancers and drummers perform in celebration of Black History Month. The show begun with African chants and initiation celebration dances such as the Kou-Kou and the Mandiani.

Kou and the MandianiMelvin Deal, 66, then asked some students and teachers to come on stage and help him with a dance routine. The audience also stood and participated in the show.

“I See You Dancing”“Eye-See-Say-Yango” is a festive celebration dance performed by the Mandingo people in West Africa.

The lead singer sings “Eye-See-Say-Yango” (“I See You Dancing”)

The audience then sings, “Eye-Eye-Eye-See-Say-Yango” (“I,I,I, See You Dancing”)

The highlight of the show came when the spiritual policeman known in many African villages as Chakaba appears on stilts and surprises many children and even some adults. Chakaba’s job is to make sure the children are behaving and not disrupting the dancers, Deal explained. As the show came to an end, each of the dancers performed a short solo dance, which brought the audience to its feet.

Crowd FavoritesAfterward, the children shared some of their favorite parts of the show and how the performances reflected on black history.

“My favorite part was when the little dude went under the stilts and the little kids were acting scared,” 11-year-old Rayquan Blakeney, said.

Aaliyah Randall, 10, was glad that the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers came to her school.

“I feel like they took time out to show us dances about our history,” Randall said.

“They do special dances, which lets me know I’m a part of black history, knowing that my ancestors did the same dance,” Inajsha Sattlewright, 9, said.

Joylynn Queen, 10, said that the performance made her proud to be black especially when she was asked to dance on stage.

Passion for African DanceMelvin Deal is the founder and leading choreographer of the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers. The 51-year-old organization has 35 members ranging from toddlers to adults.

The organization has adult, junior, and toddler companies, along with an African Heritage Griot Ensemble.

Deal, a native Washingtonian and Howard University alumnus, has always had interest in activities that didn’t reflect his surroundings. Dancing ballet since he was a child, he always had a deep passion for African dance.

Deal was told that ethnic dance was not recognized by society because of racism. He was told that he would not make it as a dancer if he decided to do dances that originated from Africa. He decided that he would find out what black people contributed to dance.

“I knew my people contributed something to the art of dance,” he said. “I discovered many wonderful things about the culture of black people such as dance that helped them overcome and cope with racism and all the ugly”.

Deal has visited West Africa several times for research. He has also visited the Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean. He has studied European culture, because he said it’s important to know about competitors.

Deal decided started the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers organization because he wanted to instill pride in black people. He wanted to show how Black people have contributed to dance.

“It gives people an understanding of the continuity of a people by the way of their culture,” Deal said. “No matter what happens, their culture survives. The dream, the dance, the energy, the joy and strength of the people continue in celebration of God & ancestors, just because.”

Drummer Yao Hunt, 13, said he has been part of the organization since he was a baby and has learned a lot about his culture. Hunt has traveled to Ghana and has drummed in Atlanta and Philadelphia.

Recognizing Community ServiceDeal’s dance studio has been in Ward 7 for 20 years. However, the city’s revitalization plan, forced him to relocate his studio to Good Hope Road, Southeast, in Ward 8. Deal didn’t have a problem moving as long as he stayed east of the Anacostia River. He said the community needs an organization like his.

“Moving forward and going bigger is always better,” Deal said. “People do get displaced, but if they’re serious about what they are doing, they will stay on course. There are too many families and children who need our enrichment.”

Julia Jones, who teaches fifth grade at Smothers Elementary School, has known Deal for a long time. Jones, also chairperson of the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative, said he is always giving back in some way to the community and regularly comes out to events.

“African Heritage Dancers and Drummers have been an anchor in Ward 7,” Jones said. “I think that it instills in young boys and girls that they need to be proud of their heritage.”

The Ward 7 Arts Collaborative will honor Deal with its 2009 Nguzo Saba Award for excellence in community service.

Strengthening FamiliesDeal is a firm believer in building children’s self esteem and their relationships with their peers. .

“It’s important to know that in teaching young people African culture, you’re teaching them to get along with one another,” Deal said. “Young people who are able to get along with each other in a cultural environment have better friendships as they reach adulthood.”

Dancer Arthur Driscoll, 50, said he performs for the children.

“I do it on behalf of the children,” Driscoll said. “It gives me self-esteem. I enjoy doing it. On behalf of the children that can’t walk, I dedicate my dancing to them.”

Deal is also passionate about encouraging parents to participate because strengthening families is important to him.

“The coming together, the mingling, the interaction is a part of African culture,” he explained. “They [Africans] believe in inclusion. It’s like having a party regularly.”

Hunt validates Deal’s claim, because he loves rehearsing with his family.

“It’s just that most of us are family,” Hunt said. “We all have fun with each other during performances and rehearsal.

The classes at the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers center are free. The organization is funded through grants, vouchers, scholarships, private corporations, fundraising and other donations. Since the economy is suffering, the group is looking for more funding, which Deal considers a worthwhile investment among young people.

“It cost less to intervene with young people than to incarcerate them,” Deal said. “It’s even cheaper than funerals. The more activities you can get young people into the less robbing and stealing will go on.”

Email Melvin Deal at AfricanHDD@aol.com or visit their Website www.AHDD.org.