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African-American Children Learn About History Through Dance, Music, Stories - 2004-02-04

For over a decade, a Portuguese-Angolan artist has used dance, music, and storytelling to give American children of African descent a sense of pride in their heritage and to raise their self-esteem. As Americans mark black history month during February, correspondent Jenny Falcon in New York visited the youngsters learning a bit of history and rhythm.

The children stretch, jump, bend and clap as they rehearse the African dance steps from the Luba tribe. Then, after they have mastered the moves, dance teacher Julio Leitao introduces the words.

The traditional song from the what was once the African Kingdom of Kongo tells the story of a mother teaching her children how to safely fetch food and water in the savannah.

Mr. Leitao says he incorporates the ancient African teaching method to expose the youngsters to a vibrant African culture.

"Those are very simple techniques, to use the dance and the music as a vehicle to be able to get the attention of a child, to be able to motivate a child to learn about who he is," he explains.

In 1990, Mr. Leitao created his non-profit dance troupe, called Batoto Yetu, which is Swahili for "Our Children." He meets with the children in after-school programs that are largely funded by grants. But Mr. Leitao also volunteers to teach nine and 10-year-olds in a diverse New York City public school that cannot afford an arts program.

During their performances, the youngsters don grass skirts, elaborate-shell headdresses and wear traditional body paint with colorful stripes.

Mr. Leitao says Batoto Yetu's dancers have also worked with children in Angola, Brazil and Portugal, but its headquarters remains in New York's historically black Harlem neighborhood.

"As an African, I can stand face-to-face with an African-American and yet we are still strangers to each other. And it was a process that started 500 years ago," he says.

Mr. Leitao believes that knowledge is an important part of creating a strong communal identity. So he works in a history lesson that focuses on the slave trade and colonialism.

"What was that process called? When they take someone by force to work? They took them to South America to work in the sugar-cane plantations? That is slavery. Remember we talked about colonialism, what is colonialism? " he asks the students.

Teacher Edwidge Roumer, who was born in Haiti, says black and Caribbean-American students are particularly interested in learning about their roots.

"Being part of a program like this one is of value also [because] there are a lot of Haitian children in this school as well," she explains. "As you know, a lot of the Caribbean Islands had people from Africa. The slaves came actually from his part of the world, from his part of Africa."

Julio Leitao spent part of his childhood in Angola, where his father, a politician, was assassinated. The family fled the war-torn country in 1975, when it was granted independence from Portugal. They settled in Portugal and became citizens after spending difficult years as refugees.

Mr. Leitao, who is now 38 years old, says experiencing discrimination in Portugal and witnessing the final years of colonial rule in Angola, inspired him to help raise Africans' self-esteem.

"The only thing that I have to do is to plant the seed so that they can one day go and find the information for themselves," he says. "I believe that a main problem for us in our communities today and what effects our self esteem is the way we see ourselves."

Whether they are African-American, Hispanic or white, the nine-year-old students say they enjoy learning the quick rhythms, shaking their body to new moves and chanting African lyrics.

"I like it. I always liked to dance," admits one student. "When I am in the shower I sing the gagi-bu-gagi-beh."

Mr. Leitao says Africans everywhere should feel proud of their rich culture, which has survived centuries of hardship. He says he will use the current era of globalization to continue to teach the beauty and the joy of African dance to children throughout the world.