Well, sort of… Today’s work was an Afro-centric exploration of the arts. Storytelling, history, dance and music from an African vantage point would teach the students about good social behavior, physical and mental balance, curiosity and courage. The spring air was unusually warm this morning, and fans were spinning in the open windows. It was going to be a warm one.
First, the feet!
“I’ve been doing this for four years. I love DAREarts!” Kevin A. Ormsby, founder of Kashedance, took us through a warm up and a stretch routine and balances for coordination and strength. He asks, “What are you warming up? The space in the joint. Your ankles, your knees. You’re young but you’ll keep yourself safe by lubricating the joints. You’ll thank yourselves later if you do this all the time.” While we went through the routine, (yes, me too. I can’t turn down the opportunity to stretch and strengthen, especially after a two hour commute to the Walmer Centre) he talked about counting. About “polyrhythm”, syncopation and the count of “and”, which is ”the sweet spot between the bars. One, two three four, one two three and change and one, two, three, four…” The students will be performing the bit of choreography Kevin’s putting together in our Spring Promenade. They’re piecing together a fairly complicated sequence but keeping up with him. “Moving on?” “Yes!” Kevin: “you have your lives ahead of you! Your brains should be snapping!” You don’t all dance the same. Put it in to your bodies the way you feel. Don’t judge yourselves by others. “Do not throw away the baby with the bath water.” Some of the kids look at him quizzically. “All your stuff came from somewhere. There was a price. It started with the industrial revolution. Everything became polluted. People just dumped their bath water in the streets. The rivers ran with filth. They were losing kids in the murky water. Don’t throw away the movement for something flashy. Pay particular attention to your feet. That’s your baby. Ball, down, ball, down. Chop chop with the hands. Grounded movement. Details are the babies. A little voice in the group says, “Baby steps.” Yes. “How many brain cells do you think you’re building?” A hand goes up. “Five?” “Way more than five. Millions.” A student demonstrates a movement. The rest of the class applauds her. At some point we’re all leaders and at some point we’re all followers. What is she doing that I can do later? At some point we’ll all be called upon to be a leader. Yes? Yes! A student has come up with a movement. He shakes his head and shoulders and stomps his foot. Kevin immediately incorporates it. “Dylan, thank you! New move called ‘the Dylan’!” It fit beautifully in the choreography. He checks in with them. “Are you having fun?” The students barely get it out. They’ve been working very hard. “Yes.” “Then it’s got to transfer into your bodies. Have fun! I know you’ve been dancing for two hours. I sometimes dance for eight hours a day.” They’re impressed with that. They work harder. Miss Laura emphasizes, “Always reach far beyond your perceived reach. You are a leader, show me that.” This is going to be a terrific dance. They only had one afternoon to learn it. They all learned the steps and now these combinations are woven together in a piece that surprised the kids with its energy and intricacy. This is a world-class dancer in their presence. Professional dancers appreciate an opportunity like this, and so do they. The morning is rounded with a warm down. It’s the same routine they learned at the beginning of the session. Now, they flow through it with greater ease. They clap for their class and Kevin looks each and every on in the eye and applauds them. Now it’s time for them to say thank you to Kevin. They do it with a bit of choreography. I don’t know how they did that, since they planned it right in front of us and had to use their words to communicate the plan with each other. He is the Artistic Director of Kashedance, a dance company “hinging on the modern dance, ballet and the Diaspora.” He is a passionate advocate of Dance Education, writing and outreach; he has presented papers and sat on panels in the US, Caribbean and across Canada. He has been published in “Pluralism in the Arts in Canada: A Change is Gonna Come” (2012) and has also self published a dance photography book “Dance Through Life” with photographer Christopher Cushman.
And now, the hands!
The afternoon was just as challenging for the students. Njacko Backo, “the King of Kalimba”, festooned in beautiful Nigerian clothing, is taking the Grade 7’s through a rhythm combination, piece by piece. “The more we bring arts to children and new audiences, the more we will see the colour of peace.” He started playing music as a very young child, and he knows how to talk to these teens with kindness and authority.
We all sat in a circle, and he handed out instruments – kalimbas, maracas, shakers and claves – to everyone. He started with a simple beat, and layered it until it got more complicated. The kids’ faces were stitched with effort as they tried to listen to each other and keep up this beat. Soon, those faces loosened into big smiles and swaying bodies. It was miraculous to watch.
One boy, painfully shy, was called upon to “call” the rest of us into a song. It took a couple of tries, but he got it. Big round of applause for him. You could see his confidence build. He was suddenly the leader that Kevin, earlier that morning, was talking about. After a couple of different patterns, Njacko called everyone to sit and listen. He told a story about a Monkey and a Panther. Tricks and lies. Truth and trust. Their faces were rapt as they listened. I swear they were different people from the kids who entered that room in the morning. DAREarts is grateful to have renowned artists like Kevin A. Ormsby and Njacko Backo work with us. I spoke with them both, and they tell me, they’ve been doing this for years and absolutely love it. You can see that’s true. They both brought a little Africa to us, in their own creative way and we were happy to go on their artistic journeys, in a warm, sweaty room in downtown Toronto.