Urban kids tap into African heritage

Christina Rodriguez, a 15-year-old from Harlem, sounds like your average urban kid. She works hard to keep up her grades in school. She has an after-school job. She plays soccer. Oh, and she's been dancing since age 3.

Onstage, Tina, as she prefers to be known, is anything but average. Dancing to the stirring beat of African drums, she catches fire. Arms pump, hips swivel, legs twist and stomp in low squats as this urban kid taps into the centuries-old traditions of her African forebears.

Tina is just one of more than 1,500 New York children who have connected to their African heritage through the Harlem-based children's company called Batoto Yetu. Created 13 years ago by Angolan immigrant Julio Leitao, the nonprofit program provides free dance, music, and academic instruction as a way to instill African-American children with a sense of pride and greater understanding of their cultural heritage.

Leitao didn't start out to form a dance company. Batoto Yetu, which means "our children" in Swahili, began on the playgrounds of New York, where Leitao began sharing his love of African dance with kids in the surrounding neighborhoods.

But as he put more energy into the endeavor, it became less an avocation than a mission. A performance opportunity led to rehearsal space in the basement of a Harlem church. Gradually, Batoto Yetu gained a prestigious list of supporters and board members, and opportunities followed, ranging from performances at the United Nations to TV shows such as "Good Morning America" and "Sesame Street."

"The story of Julio Leitao and what he has accomplished is quite a remarkable personal and professional triumph," says Ella Baff, director of Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Mass.

At the western Massachusetts dance festival this summer, the company performed in the world première of a 70-minute production, "Nzinga." With text, music, dance, and a colorful array of theatrical magic, the show evokes the spirit of a young 16th-century African woman who led her people in a revolt against Portuguese colonialists. While the show's narrative conceit is weak and theatrically undeveloped, it beautifully showcases Batoto Yetu's exuberant and committed young dancers.

The roughly 30 kids of the performing troupe, of all shapes and sizes, and ranging in age from 3 years to 22, really move. This fall, Leitao plans to take the new work to his satellite program in Portugal. His ultimate dream is to someday turn it into a Broadway production.

Dance at the center of family life

For Leitao, the company has reconnected him to the culture he left behind 25 years ago, when civil war in Angola forced him and his family to flee to Zambia. He vividly remembers the traditions of his childhood, the songs his family sang, and the stories his mother told of her own childhood. Dance was at the center of the family's social life.

But Leitao also vividly recalls the grenade that landed in the living room of his home, forcing the family - minus his father, who was subsequently murdered - to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. The family eventually made it to Portugal. There Leitao studied ballet, and dance became the focal point of his adult life. He moved to New York at age 19 and began intensive dance studies, performing with the Princeton Ballet and the Eglevsky Ballet on Long Island.

But deep in Leitao's heart was a desire to share the dance of his homeland. "It was dance that gave me an identity and a community and showed me where I came from, who I am, and most important, who I could become," he says.

Batoto Yetu became the vehicle for passing that on. "The program is about teaching the kids about where they come from," he says, "about the impact of colonialism, the impact of African culture in the world, and to realize that African-American culture is a continuation of that. I want to be part of that generation that will rewrite the books of history.... We should be the pioneers for telling our story."

No auditions required, only good grades

Through workshops in the United States and Africa, as well as in Brazil and Portugal, where Batoto Yetu has satellite programs, the company has reached more than 3,000 children in the past 13 years.

Currently, roughly 350 New York children ranging in age from 5 to 18 participate in an average of 11 hours of instruction every week. The program is open to any child willing to make the commitment, with no audition required. Leitao's only requirement is that school grades be kept up, and he provides free tutoring when needed. "I don't believe anyone should ever be denied any kind of knowledge," he says.

In Harlem, part of the program is built into the curriculum at P.S. 145, extending into after-school hours. The full company comes together on Saturdays. According to Leitao, 95 percent of the kids who stay with the program for a year end up staying at least seven years. It shows in the performances, which have gotten stronger over the past few years.

"Now they not only know the dances and how to move, they know how to express themselves from within, how to tackle emotions," Leitao says. "They are beginning to own the characters they are playing."

But for the children, Batoto Yetu is more than dance steps and drum beats. The company's "each one teach one" philosophy has engendered a culture of disciplined focus and communal support. "It's really hard work, but it's fun," says Tina. "It's like my family and it's helped me in so many ways. It's helped me to be a good person."

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