Archive for June, 2010


Step Afrika! Brings It Home

(PHOTO: gapersblock)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An irate business woman breaks up the crowd of dancers from in front of her office building. The scene could be any busy downtown street, populated by a cast of characters: a man late and lost on his way to a job interview, the business woman pacing and talking on her cell phone, a bookworm on his way to God knows where, and the jogger immersed in his workout and preoccupied with the tunes on his iPod.

Then there’s the lecherous man scouting out another woman on her way to a hair appointment. Dressed to the nines in his three-piece suit with the exposed glistening gold chain of a pocket watch, he almost evokes the image of a well-dressed pool shark or some other type of hustler. There’s something sinister about his grin and the way he rubs his hands like a casino gambler.

In the midst of everything is the sound: the Morse code of hard-bottom loafers, sneakers and stilettos pounded out on the pavement. The energy of that scene might place you somewhere outside, taking in the rhythm of an active city, instead of sitting in the crowded Lansburgh Theatre on the opening night of Step Afrika!’s “2010 Home Performance Series!” (Shows are scheduled between June 16-20.)

At last night’s performance, Step Afrika!’s audience got a glimpse of life on the road as a dancer. The high energy, high impact series was a culmination of “rhythmic footwork, body percussion, and spirited vocalizing” with roots traced back to military exhibition drills and the South African gumboot dance, according to various sources.

Stepping, or step-dancing, also incorporates the stage routines of popular singing groups like the Temptations and The Four Tops. It became popular in the mid-20th century among fraternities and sororities from movies like School Daze (1988) and Stomp the Yard (2007), and the TV series, A Different World and Sister, Sister.

In addition to collaborations with local guest artist, DJ RBI, and violinist, Brian-Joseph Uzuegbu, the multi-media production included video footage of Step Afrika!’s dancers on the road—rolling luggage through various airports, performing in classrooms and organizations around the world. “For our home base in the nation’s capital…we bring you what no other city in the world gets!” Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams stated in the handbill, referring to the two new dance pieces premiered last night. “The artists in Step Afrika! are truly a unique group of dancers…creating a veritable wall of sound through the syncopated interplay of hands, feet and voice.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Started in December 1994, Step Afrika!, based in DC, boast to be the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping.  “And we’re doing everything in our power to make sure we live up to that,” said Makeda Abraham, a Step Afrika! dancer who’s studied and performed African dance for 15 years. That company’s claim is backed by its 16 years of serving as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. at events around the world—including Canada, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Madagascar and Zimbabwe—through special invitations from American embassies.

While completing an annual 50-city tour of U.S. colleges and universities, from Maine to Mississippi, Step Afrika! frequently conducts residencies, master classes and performances in schools and community-based organizations around the world. “To date, Step Afrika! has reached well over 500,000 students with critically-acclaimed arts education programs,” Williams said. “Our programs stress academic achievement through teamwork, discipline and commitment.”

On a local level, the company provides similar services for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Washington Performing Arts Society, and  the Smithsonian Institution. Abraham noted that their educational outreach serves more than 30,000 students in the DC metropolitan area.

The opening show also encompassed the college aspect—from stepping on the quad, to frat parties, to the two-round battle of the sexes. It ended by giving homage to its roots in Africa.

The “2010 Home Performing Series” was also a revelatory experience for Artistic Director Jakari Sherman. The downtown city street scene, a small part of the series performed last night, was a look at Sherman’s ingenuity in exposing the music and performance in the everyday rhythms of pedestrians.

(PHOTO: Examiner)

In other scenes from the series, the crowd stomped and clapped along. Some folks shouted to the dancers when their fraternities and sororities were represented.

They cheered when Brian McCollum, who played the lecherous man in the downtown scene, took the stage. He electrified the crowd through another African-inspired tradition: call and response. “When I say ‘alright,’ you say ‘ok,’” McCollum told the crowd. “When I say ‘ok,’ you say ‘alright.’” McCollum: “Alright!” Crowd: “OK!!” McCollum: “OK!” Crowd: “Alright!!”

Immediately following its DC shows, Step Afrika! will fly out to perform in Morocco, Central America, Panama, Honduras and Belize. Proceeds from the entire run of the Home Performance Series funds Step Afrika!’s year-round programming and recently established scholarship fund for college students.

After being on the road for 10 months out of the year, Abraham, a Step Afrika! dancer and last night’s master of ceremonies, is glad to be doing a home show. “What an amazing year it has been for us,” she told the crowd. “We have performed all across the United States, performed internationally, and it feels so good to be back home.”

For additional information about Step Afrika!’s HPS 2010, please contact Tynisha Brooks at (202) 399-7993 ext. 111 or events@stepafrika.org. For up to the minute information on HPS 2010 and to keep abreast of Step Afrika!’s events, visit http://www.stepafrika.org.

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(PHOTO: Courtesy of citylimits.org)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Six years ago, Richard Short’s older brother hit a road block in his education. The 15-year-old recalled his brother’s high school environment as a violent one, where fights broke out in the halls almost every day and some students were caught carrying guns in their backpacks.

As a result, his brother lost focus and had to make a choice: either try to fit in with the rough crowd or drop out. “He chose to drop out,” Short told a crowd of more than 20 at a recent public action event. “My brother’s school failed him.”

That sentiment was echoed among his peers and education advocates who gathered on June 3 at All Souls Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights for “The Truth about School.”

The public action comes at a time when education reform is a hot button issue of the 2010 DC mayoral race. According to a fact sheet by Hands on DC, a nonprofit that improves the physical condition of schools, the average traditional public school building in the District is more than 60 years old.

Students, like Short’s brother, “who already face enormous challenges often have to learn in outdated and deteriorating buildings,” according to the factsheet. Repairing the District’s public school system could cost the city more than $2 billion.

Two major mayoral candidates, Mayor Adrian Fenty and DC Council Chair Vince Gray, have been involved in school reform efforts. In addition to taking over the ailing DCPS, appointing a new Schools Chancellor and rolling out a five-week summer school program and tutoring initiative, the Fenty Administration unveiled the Master Facilities Plan (MFP) for DC public schools in 2008.

(PHOTO: John Healey) Youth engaged in Lifting Voices workshop.

Under the MFP, according to the September 2008 release, school improvements were organized into three categories: academic, support and systems. The nearly $600 million modernization plan, implemented through a two-phase approach, is considered a departure from previous school facility planning efforts.

The plan spun off of the work already completed, which included some schools receiving new science labs, new central air conditioning units and repaired heating systems, along with major plumbing repairs to restrooms and water fountains.

According to the release, six schools were outfitted for pre-kindergarten students, and more than 3,500 safety and health violations were fixed.

Fenty’s rival Gray also boasts a robust reform effort. According to Gray’s website, the council chair led efforts to expand pre-K by creating 2,000 new classroom slots for three and four-year olds over the next five years. The District is 75 percent closer to that goal, the council chair’s website states, with nearly 1,500 slots created and filled.

As mayor, Gray promises to invest in early education, going beyond universal pre-K to include universal infant and toddler education. He wants to reform special education, and nurture both charter and traditional public schools by helping them collaborate on a best practice model.

“There are millions of dollars riding on school reform, but no one ever listens to kids,” said Reba Elliott, executive director of Lifting Voices, a nonprofit that provides writing workshops to youth from underserved communities.

(PHOTO: John Healey) Lifting Voices youth.

The organization uses both a bottom-up and top-down approach. The bottom-up work is done through their writing workshops in communities, according to Elliott, where one-third of the residents are functionally illiterate. The top-down approach is done through their oral history program, which gathers life stories from underserved residents to share with decision makers. “We give people the power of words,” Elliott said, “and we give those words to people in power.”

The June 3 public action, facilitated by Lifting Voices, was a recent effort to bring the word to those in power.  Elliott added, “No one ever asks the kids about their own experiences, what they’ve done…and how they feel about school reform.”

Short and six other students — who are enrolled in the city’s private, charter and traditional public schools — added their voices to the debate over education reform. The topics of discussion included teacher performance, standardized tests, motivating students and student expectation.

Short, a 10th grader at Arch Bishop Carroll High School in northeast, presented on “graduation rates.” According to a recent study by Education Week researchers, the on-time graduation rate for D.C. public school students in 2006 fell to 48.8 percent, significantly lower than the 69.2 percent for the national high school graduation rate.

The study focused on national graduation data from 1996-2006, the most recent data available, which does not include data from public charter schools. According to an update the DCist blog obtained from the Office of the Chancellor: “This year 14 out of 17 high schools increased their graduation rates, and cumulatively the graduation rate increased from 67.9% to 69.72%.”

(PHOTO: John Healey) A Lifting Voices youth.

While the gains seem promising, Short noted the responsibility isn’t only on city officials. “In order for kids to graduate, school administrators need to care enough to separate the school from the streets,” he said.

Had they done that, Short believed, his brother — who eventually went back to school and graduated — wouldn’t have dropped out in the first place. His brother’s situation, he said, “did not need to happen.”

Noah Dyson, 10, knows what needs to happen. Dyson loves a challenge. When he didn’t get it at his old school, his parents enrolled the 5th grader into a charter school. “I don’t want 4th grade work in 5th grade, but I do want 6th grade work in 5th grade,” Dyson said, adding that what he wants most is a better connection with his teachers.

(PHOTO: John Healey)

Short’s younger sister, Kheilah, agreed. Speaking on “student expectation,” the 14-year-old noted student-teacher connection can be achieved by doing away with the stigma placed on students in public schools as being “loud and crazy.” About those assumptions, “Sometimes they are right,” said Kheilah, an 8th grader at Holy Redeemer Catholic School in NW. “But sometimes they are wrong. Some students” — in public schools — “are really smart.”

An effort to address both Dyson’s and Kheilah’s concerns came on the day of the public action, when the Washington Teacher’s Union overwhelming approved a contract (voting 1,412 to 425) that would boost teachers’ pay over five years by 21.6 percent, according to reports.

The contract has to be approved by the DC Council. If it passes, the Washington Post reports, the $140 million D.C. collective bargaining agreement could raise the average teaching salary between $67,000 and $81,000.

(PHOTO: John Healey)

DC School Reform Now, an advocacy group, noted the contract also benefits students like Dyson and Kheilah. For starters,  according to the organization’s website, it would ensure that every teacher have set expectations for student achievement. Those expectations will be supported at the district and school level. Additionally, the contract calls for three district-wide Teacher Centers to be housed at selected schools, where teachers can organize, share best practices, and receive support whenever necessary.

Other forms of support for teachers to help students meet expectations are assigned mentors for teachers, a three-day intensive training at the start of the year, and ongoing support throughout their first three years.

But when it comes down to it, Stephon Williams (aka emcee Phase Ten) noted education reform is also a community issue. He added that beefs among students and gun violence in schools often start on the streets. “It’s just too many young men” — 14- and 15-year olds — “that have died,” said Williams, 17, who opened the event with a rap song about education. “I want to see our generation just change and come together.”

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