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The Evolution of African Dance at Saint Ann’s: From its Beginnings to the Present

The Evolution of African Dance at Saint Ann’s School

African Dance has remained an integral part of Saint Ann’s School for over three decades. This article explores the history, growth, challenges, and cultural significance of the program. It highlights the teachers, students, and changes that have shaped the dance form over the years.

The Early Years:
In 1991, JĂșlio L., founder of Batoto Yetu, a children’s African dance company, became the first African Dance instructor at Saint Ann’s. Graduates Jamal J. and Ellie R., who were students at the time, were introduced to African Dance through this class. The program continued under the guidance of teachers like Amadou B.N., Lamine T., Wunmi O., Shalewa M., and Jamal himself.

Rapid Expansion and Pandemic Impact:
From its humble beginnings with only 15 students, the program rapidly expanded to enroll around 160 students before the pandemic hit. However, due to the challenges of online learning, the number of dancers decreased significantly. In the 2019-20 school year, 67 dancers were expected to perform in the dance concert, but only 30 participated. This year, approximately 35 students will be part of the concert.

Zoom Learning Challenges:
Ellie highlights the difficulties of learning African Dance through Zoom due to sound delays. Responding to the beat of the drum became frustrating when the audio lagged behind the visual cues. Despite these challenges, the dedication of both teachers and students persevered.

The Future of African Dance:
Shalewa expresses concern that African Dance may never return to its pre-pandemic glory. She believes that a chain has been broken in the program’s continuity. However, there is hope for the program’s growth as live performances resume and students can once again experience the excitement and joy of dancing together.

Cultural Significance and Costumes:
African Dance concerts are known for their vibrant costumes and energetic performances. They provide a moment of unity across all grades, with students from different age groups dancing together. The shift in costumes reflects a change in focus from men’s dances to a larger emphasis on women’s dances. The significance of the costumes lies in their cultural background, with each piece holding deep meaning.

Inclusive and Contemporary Approach:
Jamal emphasizes the importance of inclusivity and contemporary African dance forms. He brings a fresh perspective to the class, incorporating movements and themes that resonate with the students’ lives in New York City. The program aims to break down barriers and allow students of all backgrounds to participate.

The Role of Drummers:
Drummer Brion V. introduces an African percussion class to provide more accessible opportunities for lower middle school and middle school students. This addition allows students to explore drumming traditions from West and Central Africa. Drummers like Ray P. and Steven M. have witnessed changes in teaching methods and performances over the years but highlight the consistent dedication of the students.

The Meaning Behind the Dance:
Unlike in the past, where dancers were only given perfunctory names of dances, there is now a greater emphasis on understanding the history and meaning behind each dance. Students learn about the cultural background and significance of the dances they perform, fostering a deeper appreciation for African traditions.

The Challenges of an Inclusive Program:
While the inclusive nature of African Dance at Saint Ann’s allows students of all levels to participate in the dance concert, it also presents challenges. The complexity of certain dances limits the repertoire that can be taught in a class that welcomes first-timers. Striking a balance between accessibility and challenging choreography is an ongoing consideration for the program.

Hope for the Future:
Despite the challenges, Ellie remains hopeful for the program’s growth and revival. The return to live performances brought relief, excitement, and a sense of unity among the dancers. J.A. expresses the joy of coming together as a class, forming connections, and having fun through African Dance.

African Dance at Saint Ann’s School has evolved over the years, adapting to changing teachers, student interests, and cultural influences. The program’s growth, challenges, and commitment to inclusivity have shaped the experiences of countless students. As the program moves forward, it remains a vibrant celebration of African culture, unity, and the joy of dance.

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