Performer wants children to sing and dance their way to adulthood

March 08, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Sheila McKenzie says that if American children could be persuaded to sing and dance and act out the stories in their heads -- if they could do like the kids in the old Andy Hardy movies and shout: "Let's put on a show!" -- then they would grow up to be happier adults.

Having sung and danced for more than a million children around the world, including a happy bunch yesterday in Baltimore, she ought to know.

"I've taught college and done lots of different things, but this has captivated me. My career keeps weaving between art and education, but I'd rather do this with children than teach because grown-ups just don't sing and dance," said Ms. McKenzie of Mt. Airy, who played songs yesterday from every continent on Earth at the World Trade Center.

"Unfortunately, we have a culture that is making an art form out of singing and dancing and play-acting, instead of it being an everyday thing," she said. "It's been shown that when you give kids more of these things they read better, achieve better across the board and have more self-esteem. The only thing we really teach kids in this country is how to play sports."

The latest in a series of storytellers spinning Saturday yarns on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center -- a big glass room called the "Top of the World" that lets you see Baltimore from all points on the compass -- Ms. McKenzie sang in French, German, Japanese, Russian and Polish, and singled out the musical gifts of black Americans for special praise. "Every 10 years or so we get a whole new music from the African-American people and it sweeps across the planet," she said.

Tracing the evolution of African music in the United States from blues to jazz, through gospel and soul and up to the present, Ms. McKenzie asked the crowd if they liked rock 'n' roll, and only the parents raised their hands. When she asked for fans of rap, almost all of the children waved their arms.

And then she explained the gulf of blank sheet music between those generations. "Elvis picked up on the intensity of the Earth, he took black rhythm and brought it to the white culture who picked up on the vitality of it. He didn't even have to tell them to dance. They just did.

"My general sense of rap is that it [expresses] a city frustration and through it the children survive and the culture survives. The children of rap are saying: "We are alive! This is us!"

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