Sankofa Dance Theatre Alaska spent last week with kindergarten, first and second graders at Fireweed Academy for an Artists in School residency, teaching them traditional African dances and drumming, as well as songs and vocabulary in Swahili to encourage community and confidence.
Sankofa Dance Theater Alaska, established in 2017, is an Anchorage-based African dance and drum group that strives to teach all ages the importance of cultural diversity, unity and education.
“We have a strong emphasis on bringing cultural diversity to Anchorage through arts and have accomplished so much within that time,” states Sankofa’s website. “Our mission … is dedicated to bringing forth a renaissance of cultural creative arts throughout Alaska. We strive to inspire brilliance in our community regardless of age through art, music, dance, and literary works as vehicles to bring enlivenment, cultural exchange and unity.”
While weather delays curtailed the team’s time with the students at Little Fireweed, Johnnie Wright III, company director of Sankofa Dance Theater Alaska, said the kids were really enjoying the lessons they learned each day.
“We’re teaching them meanings of things that they can take with them, and they can use it not only in classes, but they can take it and use it in everyday life,” Wright said. “We’re teaching them drumming; they’re having a ball with just having the instruments in front of them and banging on them and making a bunch of sounds, but they’re actually doing really good. They’re staying on rhythm. We’re also teaching them some West African and different styles of dances that they are having a ball with.”
Amelia Lee, a first grader at Fireweed Academy, said her favorite part of the residency was learning how to dance and sing, and that she hopes she can continue doing so in the future.
“I have learned how to use a drum and how to sing and dance, which I really love,” Lee said. “I want to keep doing that.”
Todd Hindman, Fireweed Academy principal, is thankful for the Artists in Schools program bringing Sankofa Dance Theater to Little Fireweed to enrich the school’s regular art instruction.
“The musician and dancers of Sankofa were able to provide a cultural and artistic experience to both students and staff that we have not experienced before,” Hindman said. “We were provided the opportunity to learn about the culture of West Africa and appreciate its music, dance, language, and values.”
In addition to the kids’ lessons during school, Sankofa Dance Theater Alaska and Little Fireweed hosted a celebration performance with the students and their families at Homer High School on Friday, Dec. 10, to show off what they learned during the week and why it is important.
“(The) performance will entail pretty much what we’ve been building up and going over with the kids all week,” Wright said. “We’re also going to give that information to the parents so they can understand what they are singing and where the moves come from.”
Each grade got to show off their new dance and drumming skills, as well as the vocabulary they learned each day.
Sankofa Dance Theater Alaska was brought to Fireweed Academy through the Artists in Schools residency program, which is supported by the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Bunnell Street Arts Center.
Kasha Smith-Poynter, managing director of Sankofa Dance Theater Alaska, said she was excited the group had the opportunity to share West African dances and language with the kids and was proud of how well they were engaging with the information.
“You get to work with such an energy and honesty that’s so humbling and fulfilling to the vessel,” Smith-Poynter said. “That’s why we love doing it — because it’s the way to have unmitigated time and information with young people and just giving of yourself. It’s been great because they are so full of energy.”
“We’ve just been now getting into elementary schools and they’re just so hungry for it,” Smith-Poynter continued. “We can start them now showing them this cultural enrichment and that there are other diverse cultures and groups out there that we can be more of one community with. It’s about less seeing each for our differences but (for) our similarities.”
Sankofa Dance Theater Alaska hopes to visit more schools and community organizations across the state of Alaska to share their work with. For more information about Sankofa Dance Theater Alaska, visit https://www.sankofaak.com/home.