Ringing in the Holidays to a Caribbean Beat
By Stephanie Martin | Dec 20, 2013
Half a dozen teenagers sit in a computer lab in a building next door to San Francisco’s Juvenile Court. Each holds a pair of bamboo sticks. Their heads bow and brows furrow as they clap out the jambalasse, a Caribbean carnival rhythm developed by African slaves and their descendants. The kids — some fresh out of juvenile detention — are working to get their GEDs through a transitional school program in San Francisco.
On this day, they’re rehearsing with a local dance company called Dance Kaiso for a performance next week marking the first night of Kwanzaa, the seven-day holiday celebrating the history and culture of the African diaspora. For 26 years, Dance Kaiso co-founders Wilfred Mark and Robbin Frey have worked with young people to preserve Caribbean cultural traditions.
“This part is a little tricky,” says Mark, who patiently teaches this group the traditional rhythms of Trinidad, his island homeland off the coast of Venezuela. The students don’t say much, but once they get the hang of a calypso groove on the bongo drums, even the most stoic kids break into smiles.
Monae Ballard, 17, says she spent three weeks shivering in San Francisco’s juvenile hall for her role in a robbery. She says she learned her lesson and is excited to be out. She joins the group on a large drum with a mallet and sways side to side through the rest of class. “Once you get the beat down, you start moving with it,” Ballard says. “You have fun with it.”
Dance Kaiso co-founders Mark and Frey have devoted themselves to keeping San Francisco’s established Afro-Caribbean dance scene thriving. Mark was a principal dancer with The Astor Johnson Repertory Dance Theater of Trinidad and Tobago. Frey was a professional actor and dancer before she met Mark while earning a Master’s in Dance Ethnology from San Francisco State.
Mark says they are just as serious about working with teens and small children as they are adult professionals. “They’re creative in their own right,” Mark explains. “I respect that. I don’t differentiate working with them from any seasoned artist.” That philosophy is tested a bit with another group Dance Kaiso is training for the Kwanzaa performance.
The some two dozen preschoolers gathered at an empty gallery in the city’s Western Addition neighborhood come from several community-enrichment programs. They giggle and stumble over their shoe laces as they learn their roles. Mark and Frey take turns marching them down the floor to the jambalasse rhythm, clawing the air with curled fingers.
The footwork is pretty complex for these novice dancers. So, for the show, most will line up under a long, shaggy dragon costume made of multicolored rags and prance to a calypso piece by famous Trinidadian musician Lord Kitchener. A few days later, Dance Kaiso heads to the Meadows Livingstone School, a tiny, private elementary school tucked behind a gate in the city’s Mission District. Mark and Frey have been artists-in-residence here for about 15 years. Before they begin the dance class, the kids take turns standing before the Kwanzaa altar to remember their ancestors.
Then they stomp, jump and swing their arms all together and in time to a bongo beat used at wake ceremonies in Trinidad. Mark and Frey often stop the music to let the kids reflect on what they’re doing and how it relates to them. “My dad’s family is from the Caribbean and Trinidad,” says one young boy. “My grandpa’s father,” he clarifies.
Principal Gail Meadows says working with Dance Kaiso helps the kids better understand and celebrate their African roots. “Plus, if you can accomplish something as a child, as a person in general, you feel good about yourself,” Meadows says. “You know, you can take your place in this world.”
Kids from all three groups will take their places onstage Thursday, December 26, 2013 for the Kwanzaa celebration at the West Bay Conference Center on Fillmore Street. Mark and Frey say above all, they want the kids to have fun and infuse their own creativity into the performance.
MeadowsLivingstone(MLS) is an elementary school in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. Its director, Gail Meadows has been running the school for thirty four years. Over ninety percent of MLS graduates go on to college. This is the only Afro-Centric School in the city and children from all ethnicities are welcome.
This is a small school with an enrollment of twenty five students. Gail’s educational philosophy is to teach the whole child which includes strong academics, emotional wellbeing, physical fitness, political understanding, performance arts and cultural pride. The basic academics are taught along with Art, African Civilization, Swimming, African Dance and Drumming, Tennis, Wrestling, and Choir.
As Gail’s husband for the last almost forty-one years, I am slightly biased about her skills and gifts. She is very modest about her school’s accomplishments; something I believe she should shout out to the world. That is what I intend to do next.
Many of The MLS students begin their academic careers in schools public, private and charter where their parents report dissatisfaction.
The parents have the following issues with these schools they had previously selected for their children: In some cases, they encountered scripted curricula that was not conducive to imaginative teaching. Teachers too often feel pressured to teach to the high-stakes standardized tests and some aren’t adequately trained in the cultural competency skills they need to teach a diverse student population. Large class sizes make it difficult to give kids the attention they need.
Gail believes every child is capable of learning and if the student is unhappy with her life, has little to no self-confidence and has had no positive educational experiences she will not do well in school.
If the child’s racial or ethnic identity is ridiculed or ignored; she will not perform up to her academic ability.
If the child’s parents are not supported in helping their children succeed, their children will probably fail.
The MLS school environment is filled with unconditional love where children know that they are valued and cared about as soon as they first enter the school. She is patient and has a unique way of dealing with students when they act out. Instead of merely punishing kids for wrong doing, she asks them to give her a play by play description of their infraction. She breaks it down where they exercised bad judgment and asks them to create a plan on what to do if that situation presents itself again. They are expected to change this behavior and Gail works with the children as well as their parents in addressing their problems.
Gail is directly involved in all aspects of her school. She knows that if a child suddenly discovers that he can dance, this will lift his self-esteem and his openness to learn something totally outside his previous experience. She will help the student reflect on this new discovery and come back to it when she feels it will be helpful.
The students at Meadows-Livingstone School learn about Black History/Herstory. They learn about leaders such as Rosa Parks, Malcom X, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Madam C.J. Walker, Thurgood Marshall, Josephine Baker, Althea Gibson and Angela Davis.
Gail connects the leader’s courage with her student’s inner bravery. This helps them understand the African American past and present struggles. It also gives them faith that they too can be leaders, heroes and heroines.
Her students know that nothing but their best efforts are acceptable whether it be Writer’s Workshop, Art or free play at recess. Gail has an infectious smile that warms the hearts of her students. She teaches them that it is important to develop an inner core and character where the child can look to herself to assess how she is doing rather than relaying totally on the feedback of peers or adults.
I have observed her school for years and have been the on-site psychotherapist. When I was in elementary school, I experienced teachers who did not like me and I knew they believed that I was stupid and lacked any qualities for good citizenship. I know the long lasting devastating effect that this message has on children as they grow older.
Gail’s energy gives her students the opposite of that. Imagine going to school every day and knowing that your teacher loves you no matter what. This factor folds neatly into the joy of learning that Gail’s methods inspire.
Her former students have become doctors, nurses, lawyers, actors, park rangers, teachers, college professors, comedians, college and graduate students.
Examples of Positive Change: The girl who starts out talking viciously behind her peers back and then finds the means to find friendship and ways to comfort them when they are having a hard day. This same student who refused to give much effort now exerting herself at every opportunity. The boy who believed his learning disability prevented him from success is now putting forth the effort to achieve. The girl who doubted she had any ability to perform was now shining as a singer and dancer throughout the city. The girl who declared on a regular basis that she was stupid, is now reading way beyond grade level.
I am always amazed when the school day ends because most of the kids don’t leave. They feel this sense of community and validation that we all long for. Gail actually has to tell the kids to leave so she can come home.
The end of school celebration which is a rite of passage for African American children is called Steppin’ Up and Steppin’ On. This ceremony is more a revival of the human spirit than a simple graduation. Tears, laughter, singing, dancing and praise for academic performances are honored with grace and ferocity.
Her school is an oasis in the middle of a huge storm. MLS has been praised in The San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Guardian. Maybe one day you can check it out. If you want to find out more about The MeadowsLivingstone School, click here http://www.meadowslivingstoneschool.com/
“I like this school because it’s hard, and I can tell I’m learning. I’m having fun, and I’m not afraid of numbers anymore.”
—Wren, age 8
For over 25 years, Meadows-Livingstone School has specialized in educating African-American children to reach their full academic, social, emotional and creative potential. We solve Black parents’ dilemma: finding an academically challenging school that also cultivates their children’s self-respect. We build students’ strength through a holistic approach, teaching the whole child. We are a small school – fewer than 30 students – where we treat teachers, students and families as valued members of a caring community.