A Celebratory Black History Month Kick-Off at Second Chance High School

By Urban Gateways Associate Board Member Lauren Shirk

The mission of the Urban Gateways Associate Board is to support Urban Gateways in bringing arts experiences to youth all over Chicago, and one way we’ve done so recently was by hosting a happy hour event in August 2016 that raised funds to provide free performances at two high schools in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. As a kick-off to Black History Month, Urban Gateways touring artists from the Soli Performing Arts Company visited two Peace & Education Coalition Alternative High School campuses on January 31 to perform “Celebration Dances of West Africa.” I am new to the Associate Board and I was so excited to attend the morning performance and see an Urban Gateways program in action for the first time!

It can be difficult to engage a group of high school students, and naturally the students at Second Chance High School were talking and laughing loudly as they waited for the performance to begin. But as the performers entered the room, with their bright clothing and rhythmic drums, attention was immediately focused forward. Some students even began dancing in their chairs along with the music.

After their first dance, the performers explained to the audience how dance has been traditionally used in Africa as a means of storytelling. They explained the names of all the instruments and what materials the drums were originally made from. They engaged the crowd with call and response clapping and singing. And to get the audience even more involved, Soli asked student volunteers to come up with the group to learn some authentic dance moves. The students really had fun with this as they learned some new moves and incorporated some of their own. And then, to the students’ delight, the teachers were also invited onstage to dance!

Soli did more than just perform for a group of students: They made the show into a fun and interactive teaching experience. The performers explained the names of the dances they performed and described their traditional meanings. They spoke about African proverbs (such as “It takes a village to raise a child”) and led a chant repeating “I am somebody.” It was extremely powerful to hear a group of young people who may have overcome challenges to be where they are join together in a chant like this.

It is easy to be intimidated by people or cultures different from your own, and performance art like “Celebration Dances of West Africa” can help break down those barriers and teach both students and adults that not only can it be fun to learn about other cultures, but we may learn that we’re not so different after all.

This was such a fun and eye-opening experience for me and I can’t wait to attend another Urban Gateways event!

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Photos by Alayna Kudalis.
Check out more photos from this performance!

Thanks to Lauren for blogging, and to the Urban Gateways Associate Board for funding these shows! Check back in soon for more blog posts by Associate Board members.