The Beat Goes On: Tradition and change at St. Ann’s popular African dance program

This article is one of the winning submissions from the New York Post Scholars Contest, presented by Command Education.

Students form a circle in the middle of the room, as loud, pounding music plays in the background. They take turns darting in and out of the center, moving to the beat of the song. They pull classmates with them, mirroring their moves, and sway their arms to the melody. Their teacher occasionally calls out to them, changing the music, their footwork, and their partners, as everyone takes a turn in the middle.

This is African Dance. The class was introduced almost 32 years ago, and it remains an integral part of Saint Ann’s today.

In 1991, a teacher named Júlio L., who already headed a children’s African dance company called Batoto Yetu, became the first African Dance instructor at Saint Ann’s, at the invitation of Sharon L., then the chair of the theater department. (Batoto Yetu, founded in 1990, still practices today.) Jamal J. and Ellie R., both current teachers, were students at Saint Ann’s at the time, and Jamal recalls that he was first introduced to African Dance through the class. When Julio left the school in 1997, teachers like Amadou B.N. and Lamine T. led the program, until Wunmi O. became the teacher. Wunmi taught alone, until Shalewa M., who joined as a substitute teacher in 2001, and Jamal, who also began as a substitute in 2003, started at Saint Ann’s. Wunmi left the school in 2007, and Jamal and Shalewa took over her duties.

When the program began, Jamal recalls, it started with only around 15 kids in the middle school, and another 15 in the high school. As the program continued, it rapidly expanded; at its peak, before the pandemic, about 160 students were enrolled.

In the 2019-20 school year, African Dance had 67 dancers expected in the dance concert before it was canceled due to pandemic. Shalewa said that, in 2021, “we had fewer than 30. This year, we are at about 35 that will be in the dance concert.”

Ellie said Zoom learning was difficult because of the sound delay: “Learning how to dance with the drum, and respond to the drum, when the drum is behind what you’re seeing and being shown, it was very frustrating for a lot of people.”

The program didn’t have its usual concert in 2021, opting instead for an online performance. Shalewa says that African Dance may never come back the same way after the pandemic, that “a chain was broken.”

The African Dance concerts are typically loud and colorful affairs. They’re performed with the other dance performances, such as modern dance, and provide a moment where all grades are dancing together. Drummers play at the back of the stage. “Everything just breaks loose,” says junior R.S. “The drums are so loud, and it’s just so fun.”

Z.O, a freshman, said that she also finds it really exciting when all the African Dance classes come together to practice, and specifically the Sunday dance rehearsals. She finds that the “process of putting our dances together and getting to dance with people in other grades” is particularly special.

M.L, also a freshman, says that the fact that you have something to look forward to, work towards, and eventually show off is her favorite part of the concert. And, she adds, the “backstage excitement before you go on is just so fun.”

Jamal and Ellie, who graduated from the school in 1996 and 1995, respectively, were part of the first five years of the program. They learned dances from Angola, where Julio was born, and from Zaire, known after 1997 as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In later years, with a change in teachers, the program shifted into dance forms mainly from West Africa.

Although there are many differences between the dance forms, one of them is the instrumentation. They use different orchestras, and subsequently, different instruments. Some dances Jamal teaches today come from his years with Batoto Yetu, but he says he mainly works from the traditions of Mali and Senegal. Dances from elsewhere, like Haiti or the Mali Empire, which was what is now Mali and Northeastern Guinea, have also been taught.

Jamal notes that he also tries to teach more contemporary forms. “When I think of African dance, I think of contemporary African dance,” he explains. “When [most] people think of it, they think, ‘What’s done in the village?’ There are so many more exploratory, contemporary things happening on that continent.”

Brion V., a drummer and the third African Dance teacher, created an African percussion class for lower middle school and middle school students this year. He created it because he wants the kids at the school to have opportunities he didn’t have growing up, like a more accessible and frequent class.

“The fact that there is so much time here to spend cultivating a team with students, that’s what inspires me,” Brion says. Some of his students will drum with him at a middle school African Dance concert later in the year. Brion has been drumming for 12 years, and has been at Saint Ann’s for two. He teaches mainly from West Africa, but does teach from Central Africa as well.

When the dances changed, so did the costumes. Jamal remembers that when he was in 7th grade, “I was dancing with no shirt on, in front of everybody.”

Ellie says that the costumes she wore were different from the ones now. She once wore a raffia, also known as a grass skirt, to a performance. Ellie says that the major reason for the costume shift is that the dances they were taught were men’s dances, but now there is a larger focus on women’s dances.

J.A, a sophomore, says that the costumes are her favorite part of the class: “Learning about the cultural background of all the dances, and seeing that come to life with all the costumes and all the stuff that we wear, having so much meaning behind it is really beautiful and just so significant.”

Ellie said that Julio’s ballet background made the class more accessible. “He had the dance language we all learned,” she says. “He was talking about pirouettes and plies, and using the classical European dance language to communicate. He had been trained in it, he could bridge that gap, that made it really exciting. It was something new, but we still knew how to access it.”

Jamal says that, although it was different from the dances he was learning at the time at school, “there was something about it, just having the instrumentation, the music, the movement. Kids grabbed onto it…There was something about it that felt like, ‘This is interesting, this is cool, this is physical, this is disciplined.’ Kids respected that right off the bat.”

Ellie says another major change from her student days is that she wasn’t given the meaning of dances she learned. She was given the title of a dance, but nothing past a “perfunctory name.” In dance classes now, especially in high school, the meaning of a dance is stressed. For example, one of the high school classes is learning a dance called Jondon, traditionally an iron workers’ dance. Z.O. says that learning the history of the dances is her favorite part of the class.

Ray P. has been working at Saint Ann’s as a drummer for 16 years. Previous dance teachers like Wunmi had different methods of teaching and performing, like picking students at random to solo. That practice has ended, but Ray says that was an era he “really enjoyed…it was something else.”

On the other hand, drummer Steven M. says that he hasn’t seen that much of a change in his 20 years, that the class has been “consistent.” A reason for this, he says, is the students. Although the dancing, teaching and costumes have been altered, the students themselves haven’t changed in nature.

Jamal says, “I try to talk about how the ideas and themes within this work and these traditions apply to what we’re doing here, with these kids’ existence, in 2023 in New York City.” He brings up the dance he was currently teaching his 7th graders. “With their dance in particular, from Mali, West Africa, you don’t need to come from a specific caste to participate.”

The theme of their dance is inclusion, which is important especially in those grades, he says. African Dance at Saint Ann’s isn’t “leveled,” Shalewa says, which makes it different from other dance forms. “You can be a first timer in any grade from 9 to 12 and take African Dance and participate in a dance concert.” However, this has its drawbacks. The dances that can be taught are limited, because “they are more challenging than is appropriate for a class that welcomes first-timers.”

Ellie is hopeful for the program to grow again. Of the classes’ return to live performances last year, she says, “You could just feel the relief, the release and the love from the audience–and just the excitement that it was happening again.”

“We’re all in different grades, and don’t know each other so well,” says J.A, “but there’s these moments in class where we can come together as one and have fun together, and it’s like we’ve known each other for years.”

A 10th-grader at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, Purohit hopes to be a history professor one day.