Moves with deep roots

History: For one teacher, learning the rhythm and steps of African dance is only part of her classwork.

December 11, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

One by one, a group of women and girls stepped forward in the cafeteria of Patapsco Middle School last night and showed off a few moves they had learned in their African dance class.

The instructor, Valerie Christian-Mack, danced close to each student, ringing a bell and shaking a beaded percussion instrument, and the dancers cheered and clapped as their classmates jumped, hopped, shook their shoulders and ribs and threw her arms wide to a recorded drumbeat.

But for Christian-Mack, the movements are just one element of her classes.

She likes to tell her students about the meanings of dances that were used by Africans to celebrate life changes, help women attract husbands or give thanks for food.

She also offers vocabulary lessons, explains the significance of the costumes she makes and talks about the principles of African dance, such as moving different parts of the body at different speeds and dancing in circles to make the prayerful aspects more powerful.

"When students leave the class, they understand the theory and history behind [the dances]," said Christian-Mack, 44, of Windsor Mill.

The students, who signed up through the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, provided the finale for their classes last night with a performance of dances celebrating Kwanzaa, a seven-day observance of African culture, history and values that begins Dec. 26.

The evening started with students talking about the principles of Kwanzaa. Then they performed one dance representing first fruits: the meaning of the word Kwanzaa. Other dances emphasized creativity, faith and community.

Christian-Mack said she teaches children, adults and seniors to dance, changing the moves based on a person's ability.

"I really had to modify the steps" for a class of senior citizens at Anne Arundel Community College, where she is a part-time faculty member, she said. She also teaches adolescents in the Scott's Branch Police Athletic League in Baltimore County.

African dance is becoming more widespread in Maryland at the professional and amateur levels, said Alvin Mayes, a dance instructor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Major cities, such as Baltimore, Washington, New York and Philadelphia, "historically have very large African-American populations who have gone back to various sources of where the movement has come from," he said, particularly West Africa.

One element Christian-Mack emphasizes with all her classes is unity. Even though the people who take her classes are from a variety of backgrounds, "all of us combine our strength ... to produce one big thing," she said.

Even though the class is listed for adults, she welcomes students' children. In African culture, she said, every member of the village is important.

"It's been great having them with us," Julie Neidorf said of dancing with her daughters, Ava Toppo, 11, and Mairin Toppo, 7. "We're all at different ... places in our lives. This is something we can all share."

"She is such a vivacious person," said Tamarah Nuttle, 45, of Columbia. "We had tons of things that made us different, but she said we were going to focus on the things that make us a tribe."

Nuttle, a teacher and administrator for a home-school umbrella group, added, "African dance - at least what I've seen locally - is just so free and has such a wonderful rhythm. It just seems like anybody - any shape, any size - anybody can have fun doing it."

Christian-Mack first danced when she was 5 years old and her mother took her to the YWCA in Baltimore for jazz, tap and ballet lessons. She studied with Ava Fields Dance Company in Baltimore from age 11 until she went to college.

She worked in a laboratory for the Maryland Department of Agriculture until 1993 and pursued dance in her free time, including at the Sankofa African Dance Theater in Baltimore.

When she was laid off from her job, she started dancing more seriously and thought it would be fun to instruct others. One teaching job led to another and now "my plate is full," she said.

"Teaching dance is not a job for me," Christian-Mack said, explaining that she spends more on costumes, snacks, gifts for her dancers and dance supplies for children who cannot afford them than she earns for most classes.

"I'm in it because of the love of the dance," she said.

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