Afro-Latin Dance Company Brings New Ideas to Arts Education
By Judith Aquino
As another wave of budget cuts makes its way through New York City schools—74 schools, including prestigious high schools, are expected to have their budgets cut by 5% next year—schools continue to scale back their art, music, and after school programs. As a result, educators must find other ways to bring the arts and cultural education to their students. Last year, through savvy networking, the ABAKUÁ Afro-Latin dance company treated students at P.S. 137 in Lower Manhattan to a special 2-hour performance. For many students, teachers, and parents, it was an eye-opening experience. Students from 5th grade through Pre-K were moved to “dance in the aisles,” said Emanuel Blackett, a dancer and Director of Development and Education for ABAKUÁ. “It was greatly rewarding for us to see the students responding to our show and enjoying it.”
Founded in 2000 by Frankie Martinez, who identified the company’s style of dance as ‘Afro-Latin Funk’, the group quickly established itself through innovative choreography and vibrant dancers. By fusing together elements of classic New York style ‘On 2’ Mambo with Afro-Caribbean folkloric dances, as well as hints of modern, jazz, ballet and even some martial art forms, ABAKUÁ’s performances are refreshingly unique.
When the news broke out that ABAKUÁ would be performing again this spring, the students eagerly anticipated another great show. “The kids knew that they were coming. The familiarity was there. Especially in an urban community such as this, kids rarely have an opportunity to experience and be exposed to such performing arts. They are learning about history and culture through this channel. It is a healthy supplement to…the other stuff that’s out in the streets and I think the kids themselves are beginning to realize it,” commented Principal Melissa Rodriguez.
“I felt that the performance was as educational as it was entertaining both in terms of the presentation as well as the dancing. Visually it was stunning. Schools desperately need this. It is rare that students get to see performing arts of this high a caliber,” added Angela Paccione, a music teacher.
Inspired by their success at P.S. 137, Blackett revealed that ABAKUÁ is in the process of developing an innovative curriculum with a high school in Brooklyn that will integrate history and literature with lessons on body movement and self-expression. For example, to gain a clearer understanding of slavery through visual arts, students will study dance movements inspired by the act of slavery, such as kneeling and keeping one’s head down in a symbol of oppression. Another idea will expand on the use of digital narratives by having students compose a personal narrative and use facial expressions and movements to express the emotions contained in their story. “One of our oldest goals as a company has been to inspire others to find their own creative expressions and to think of Afro-Latin dance as a viable art form,” Blackett explained.
Although these plans are still in a nascent stage, ABAKUÁ looks forward to helping schools find new ways to uncover the wealth of knowledge that lies in dancing. As dancer and choreographer, Agnes de Mille once said, “the truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music.” #