Brooklyn Kids Absorb Culture to African Beat

The urgent rhythm of throbbing drums fills the air as the bare-chested young man faces the council of elders. This is the ceremony that will mark the boy's passage into manhood. With a sudden leap, he bursts into a dance of joy, using his body to describe both his individuality and his newfound authority. The elders nod approvingly and then open their arms to admit him into their midst, now one of the adults.

Until recently, this boy knew more about the intricacies of New York's subway system than he did about tribal ritual. And yet today he, and a few hundred of his young neighbors in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, have a new grounding in African culture and customs, courtesy of a program called Dance Africa.

Dance Africa is a 20-year-long collaboration between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. Working through various after-school and Saturday projects for youths sponsored by the Restoration Corp., the project teaches children about African history, art, geography, language - and dance.

Dance Africa is really just one piece of a larger movement to teach young African-Americans about their African roots. It has gained strength in the United States over the last 20 years or so.

"For a long time now black scholars and activists have made it very clear that black people need to be linked with their history," says Joyce Joyce, chairwoman of the African-American Studies Department at Philadelphia's Temple University.

Due to the abrupt severing of family and cultural ties caused by slavery, "too many of us have little knowledge of our African heritage," Professor Joyce says. The 16-week Dance Africa program focuses on what was once known as "the Mali empire," the Western African region that includes Mali, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal that was once home to most of the Africans forced into slavery.

Important tool

In a tough city neighborhood like Bedford-Stuyvesant - roughly a third of its residents live below the poverty level and about 40 percent did not complete high school - knowledge of the ancient Mali empire is viewed not as an academic luxury but as a tool for lifting consciousness.

Learning about African culture and tradition serves to both help the area's children "build self esteem" and "make their worlds bigger," says Peggy Alston, creative director of the Restoration Corp.

This year the focal point of Dance Africa was a traditional African rite-of-passage ceremony involving 16 neighborhood adolescents.

The boys worked for months with a "council of elders," a group of older men who volunteered to mentor the boys. The boys and elders spent time together eating in African restaurants, visiting museums, and sharing ideas and advice.

Jonathan Robinson, a professional dancer and teacher volunteered to serve as an elder because he wanted to extend his sense of family to include his community. "It's important that everybody feel as though they belong, that they're loved," he says. He says he became interested in African culture as a college student, and adds that for many young men that knowledge will add "fuel to the fire of their lives."

Mr. Robinson was "the coolest" of all the mentors, says Sekou Torbert, a young teen who was recently cast as a dancer in the Broadway hit "Bring In 'Da Noise/Bring In 'Da Funk."

"He told us everything real about life," Sekou says. "About women, about our health, how we should take care of ourselves and carry ourselves with respect." As a young African-American, Sekou says he finds "everything about African culture inspiring."

Educator Walter Gholson set up a rite-of-passage program in Chicago as part of a project sponsored by AT&T from 1995 through 1997. He believes the interaction between the elders and the boys is especially important in African-American communities because "as a people we've been cut off from the wisdom of our elders. How can you understand your potential unless you understand the accomplishments of your ancestors?"

The boys and their ceremony were the center of the project this year, but several hundred other boys and girls participated too, with many choosing to learn traditional African dances. They performed these alongside professional African dance troupes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's annual Dance Africa program last month.

After-school work

But dance is not the whole of the project. In an after-school program called Safe Haven, the children also learn to make African masks, pick up bits of different African languages, study maps, and read up on various African countries.

Although the program is not connected to their schools, and the children earn no academic credit for these activities, many pour remarkable amounts of time and energy into the project.

Ms. Alston proudly shows a visitor file folders full of neatly handwritten reports that some of the children did on places - in Africa and elsewhere - that they would like to visit.

When it comes to learning about Africa, says Alston, the children "soak it up like sponges."

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