There will be no shuckin’ and jivin’ in Melvin Deal’s dance class at the African Heritage Center on Minnesota Avenue NE. No attitude. No handouts. Such proclamations are hard for a kid. After all, this is not Fame. Instead of die-hard professional dancers, he’s dealing with young people, ages 14 to 21, from the Summer Youth Employment Program. Most have no previous experience in West African dance, and they could be cooling off at the pool rather than sweltering in the summer heat during demanding workouts. But somehow Deal’s motivational skills manage to keep them going.
“One day, something’s going to bite you!” he warns, quickly zooming in on one girl who’s playing with her Bantu knots rather than focusing on her routine. “And more than likely it’s going to be some funky-butt boy who will ruin your life!”
“Look alive!” Deal commands the drummers, who start up the rhythm. The dancers follow through by clapping, singing, and dancing across the floor with arms up, over, and down, legs scurrying closely behind. The Kouyaga dance from the Ivory Coast marks their initiation, a rite of passage into womanhood and manhood—meaning it is time for them to assume more responsibility.
“You have to learn to think and act for yourself,” he tells them at the end of the dance. “And stop leaning like you’re out at the bus stop.” Deal, too, has been playing the drum throughout the dance, but his antennae have picked up everything: After calling out those who got an attitude when they weren’t given a solo, those who were depending on others to carry the dance, and those who were just “spoiled rotten,” Deal says he can’t wait to run and tell their parents about them. Ouch.—Ayesha Morris
The African Heritage Center presents its Summer Series of performances Monday, Aug. 2, to Friday, Aug. 6 at noon and 1 p.m (with an additional show at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 6). Call (202) 399-5252 for more information.