In a time of shrinking school budgets, arts education sometimes takes a back seat to academics. In order to introduce students to arts not often taught in schools, the Pittsburgh Promise hosted a series of immersive dance and music classes taught by local artists.
On the stage of the August Wilson Center, Oronde Sharif taught eight students Senegal’s harvest dance. He moved around the stage, bent over and pantomimed plowing a row of dirt, explaining what each gesture meant.
As he squatted low to the floor and pretended to plant a seed in the ground, he said the movements reflect the importance of agriculture for the people of Senegal.
Sharif directs the Shona Sharif African Drum and Dance Ensemble at the University of Pittsburgh. He was one of three local artists who taught a workshop to public school students Wednesday night. Other artists taught ballet, symphony orchestra and the history of jazz in Pittsburgh.
Some dances he teaches are ones of celebration, some tell important cultural stories.
“I look at traditional dance as being cultural retainers,” he said. “They help people retain who they are. And keep their histories, their cultures, their identities, things you’re supposed to do, things you’re not supposed to do.”
Alysia Lee, 14, of the East Hills, is a dance student at the Pittsburgh Creative and Preforming Arts School. She said she’s been dancing since she was 2 years old. She tries everything from ballet, jazz and modern dance, but her focus is on hip-hop. After following Sharif on stage, she said the African dance was much faster than hip-hop, but the idea of telling a story through dance resonated with her.
“All of the dances, we do have a message behind them, a story behind them,” she said. “Whether it’s about the world or about us.”
For example, at a dance camp this summer, she performed a piece reflecting her thoughts about police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It was just a very raw piece,” she said. “Just dance in general helps me get away from everything and just deal with all of my problems. If I’m having a problem I just dance, you know. I just put all of that anger or sadness into the movement.”
Sharif said students connect to African dance because it gives them a sense of belonging.
“Not everyone knows where they come from in terms of African Americans and the trans-Atlantic slave trade and everything,” he said. “Not that everybody is lost, but when you feel like you connect with something like that, this is what we did historically, this is what we did creatively. For some people, that’s really emotional. It hits home and it makes them really connected to it.”
He said traditional and modern dance both tell stories and describe cultures. Though, he said traditional African dance can feel awkward for some students, they’ll be glad they tried.
“In that you can explore different things and try different things and if you don’t like it, cool,” he said. “But at least you gave it a shot.”
The Pittsburgh Promise will present another jazz class and lecture with Wynton Marsalis on Nov. 10.