Exploring Diversity through Dance


During the month of February, our morning program “Reading with the Arts” for kindergarten through 2nd graders at Greeley Elementary celebrated Black History Month by reading a children’s story about legendary American choreographer Alvin Ailey. We started a conversation about heritage and how artists such as Ailey use their heritage to create their art.

We watched Ailey’s famous dance “Revelations” and looked for ways that he used his childhood memories of attending church services and moving to Gospel music to fuel his creativity. We even learned a gospel song, “Hallelujah”, and danced to it. Following in the footsteps of Alvin Ailey, who was inspired by the way Katherine Dunham used Afro-Caribbean dance in her choreography, we also got introduced to West African dance when Senegalese dancer Idy Ciss guest taught in our morning program. The students’ enthusiastic response made me realize that beyond the infectious rhythms and the joy they found in the movement, there was a sense of ownership and pride the students of African descent seemed to derive from the experience. We were celebrating their heritage and culture! The students were also very curious about the diversity of the African continent.

With Idy, we learned a dance, some Wolof, rhythms, and all about the Djembe drum. The students remembered all of it with such ease that once again I realized that we were onto some great teaching moments. So I decided to talk about my own heritage and how I, too, was African but that my country, Morocco, has traditions different from the rest of Africa. For example, because of our history and proximity to Europe, we speak Arabic, French, Berber and Spanish.

Later in the residency, student Audra’s mother, Clera Shen, came in and made paper lanterns with the students and talked about Chinese New Year traditions. We will be continuing to learn about Chinese culture by reading a Chinese Cinderella story and creating our own dragon dance.

With the student body being so diverse (students come from families from China, Mexico, Nigeria, Ghana), I wanted to celebrate diversity in its many forms whether ethnic, artistic or individual. We have been reading “Dancing in the Wings”, a story written by choreographer Debbie Allen about a girl being teased for being so tall who finally takes ownership of her height and starts to shine as a young dancer. We created some duets to jazz music that allowed for self expression through improvisation. We also had some interesting conversations about the many ways we are all so different and how that is what makes us so unique. We came to the consensus that diversity is an asset, something we should value and nurture!

I’d like to finish this unit by reading one of my favorite children’s books, “The Sandwich Swap”. Written by Queen Rania of Jordan, it tells the story of two young girls who, despite being best friends, get in a spat over how gross their respective lunches look to one another: Salma eats a hummus sandwich and Lily a peanut butter sandwich. When they finally open up their minds and try each other’s sandwiches, they enjoy the experience so much that they start a school-wide event where all students get to share food from their family’s heritage.

Our unit will culminate in each student creating a short phrase to express their own individuality and perform it to as many different musical genres as we can think of …yet another way to celebrate diversity!

Photos of Zineb’s class at Greeley by Lucas Anti:

This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.