By Olivia Meeks, Dance Project Intern
As one of Dance Project’s summer interns, I was excited to stop by their annual Dancing and Drumming workshop at Brown Recreation Center, even though I only knew a little about it. I knew that Wesley Williams, director of Suah African Dance Theatre was leading it, teaching music and dance of West Africa. I knew elementary aged students were attending, who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to learn dance for free from such an accomplished teacher. So with these pieces of information, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I went into the room, I saw young boys seated in a row in front of Wesley, each with their own drum – quietly awaiting instructions. The girls were behind Wesley, while he patiently and thoroughly went over one more dance step with them.
As they practiced for the performances at the end of the program, Wesley divided the class for the boys to work on the drums with him, and the assistant teachers went over the dance steps with the girls. When the girls were working, I could see some of these young students struggle with challenging footwork and fast-paced movements, but they always kept moving. As they practiced quick jumps with arms waving above them, and quick weight transfers with a sweeping arm, one little girl, heartbroken, said, “I can’t do it.” The assistant immediately said, “Yes, you can!” She gave such rich encouragement while they continued to work hard together.
The boys on the other side of the room were learning new rhythms on the drums. Wesley would demonstrate multiple times for them, and then the boys would join in with him playing. He’d stop them every now and then to give a correction, or have a student lead the example. At one point, he told a student, “Don’t rub it, hit it” and the musical qualities shifted from deep, dull throbs to resonant, quick bursts. It felt as if the room were pulsing and echoing.
At the end of my time there, the boys were confident on the drums, and the little girl who said she couldn’t do it was smiling through the last run-through of the dance. The room truly felt encouraged and invigorated, with new assurance and pride. Wesley gathered all the students and told them that while the work they’re doing is challenging, performing at the end of the month will be fun and rewarding. I left knowing that the students were learning alongside kind leaders and encouragers that make the challenging work of learning African music and dance gratifying and fun. More than that, I saw the students learning real perseverance and respect for themselves and their teachers. I can’t wait to see the performance!
The final performance for this year will be held Friday, July 29, at 5:00pm at the Greensboro Cultural Arts Center. The short performance is free, fun, and family-friendly! For more info, click here.