The urgent rhythm of throbbing drums fills the air as the bare-
chested young man faces the council of elders. This is the ceremony
that will mark the boy's passage into manhood. With a sudden leap,
he bursts into a dance of joy, using his body to describe both his
individuality and his newfound authority. The elders nod approvingly
and then open their arms to admit him into their midst, now one of
Until recently, this boy knew more about the intricacies of New
York's subway system than he did about tribal ritual. And yet today
he, and a few hundred of his young neighbors in Brooklyn's Bedford-
Stuyvesant neighborhood, have a new grounding in African culture and
customs, courtesy of a program called Dance Africa.
Dance Africa is a 20-year-long collaboration between the Brooklyn
Academy of Music and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. Working
through various after-school and Saturday projects for youths
sponsored by the Restoration Corp., the project teaches children
about African history, art, geography, language - and dance.
Dance Africa is really just one piece of a larger movement to
teach young African-Americans about their African roots. It has
gained strength in the United States over the last 20 years or so.
"For a long time now black scholars and activists have made it
very clear that black people need to be linked with their history,"
says Joyce Joyce, chairwoman of the African-American Studies
Department at Philadelphia's Temple University.
Due to the abrupt severing of family and cultural ties caused by
slavery, "too many of us have little knowledge of our African
heritage," Professor Joyce says. The 16-week Dance Africa program
focuses on what was once known as "the Mali empire," the Western
African region that includes Mali, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, and
Senegal that was once home to most of the Africans forced into
In a tough city neighborhood like Bedford-Stuyvesant - roughly a
third of its residents live below the poverty level and about 40
percent did not complete high school - knowledge of the ancient Mali
empire is viewed not as an academic luxury but as a tool for lifting
Learning about African culture and tradition serves to both help
the area's children "build self esteem" and "make their worlds
bigger," says Peggy Alston, creative director of the Restoration
This year the focal point of Dance Africa was a traditional
African rite-of-passage ceremony involving 16 neighborhood
The boys worked for months with a "council of elders," a group of
older men who volunteered to mentor the boys. …