Some people get so much flack from their parents about who they are expected to be that they go to great pains to become somebody else. Or nobody at all.
On the other hand, some people have to invent themselves.
As long as he can remember, Melvin Deal wanted to dance. As a small boy he shut himself in a room and danced. As a Boy Scout he learned the shuffling Indian tribal dances.
Then he discovered African dancing.
When he was 13, he started dropping in at the private Northeast Academy of Dance, just around the corner from where he lived with his grandmother. He became a regular student attending their school. One day he was assigned a research project in folk dancing. He picked the Watusi giraffe dance some how mastered its elegant cranings and leapings, made himself a Watusi costume and caused a sensation in a recital at Lisner Auditorum. It was 1955.
"I gave him all the African dance I knew," said Bernice Hammond, director of Northeast, the oldest black dance school in Washington, "and then I guided him to the African embassies where he learned more. He was also gifted in designing costumes, researching and making them. He was brave to do the African thing. His interest in Africa consumed his entire being."
By 1959 he was dressing in robes and dashikis, wearing his hari natural. He was one of the very first. It was not easy.
There was no Afro-sheen, no bush combs. Barbers laughed at him. Black children ran behind him shouting "Bushman! Bushman!" People thought he was Nigerian and complimented him on his good English. Even when Deal entered Howard University to major in sociology and education (working evenings in the D.C. Library), his African ways drew fire. At the time, most African blacks wanted nothing to do with their AFrican past.
"Most of my family was oblivious." Deal said. "We were living in Near Northeast, which was an enclave without much cultural interest. People who live in enclaves have other priorities - the numbers, church, parties and social life, and just trying to survive. Like my father, he didn't say much about it, I guess it turned him off. Until he saw me dance."
Melvin Deal has been dancing in public for over 20 years. His father saw him perform last February for the first time.
Deal's parents had split up. Both were ailing, his father unable to work because of emphysema and heart trouble, his mother crippled by polio since the age of 3. Melvin, an only child, went to live with his grandmother, Martha Worthy. At college age he moved out by himself. Mrs. Worthy said the family approved of the dancing.
"We went along with it; we were all interested in this dancing thing," she said. "A very nice boy. Doesn't smoke, drink or chew. I've got a lot of African stuff he made, and I sold tickets at his concerts, I wear the costumes he made me at the concerts."
But this has all come recently, according to Deal. when his grandmother brought some neighbours to a concert a little while ago "they were amazed." One exception was his great-grandmother, "a great force in the family," who died last year at 96.
Mostly, Deal's Africanness was something he had to work out for himself.
"My first real contact with Africans came when I was at Howard and I started dancing at coffeehouses like the Open Way and whites would come and ask me what the dances meant. I didn't know, so I save myself embarrassment I found out. And the more African culture I got into, the more I learned the answers to life's questions.
At Howard he saw Babantunde Olatunji, the African dancer and got to know African students. Yet even after Howard and after a year at the New School in New York, he found resistance among black people. At the 12th Street YMCA, where he tried to teach dance in 1964, he soon had trouble with the management, which saw him as some sort of militant. Useless to explain that he was not political.
Then everything changed. Dashikis were in. Topper Carew's New Thing arts movement became the rage of liberal Washington.
Deal's African Heritage Dancers and Drummers were a solid part of the New Thing, so solid in fact, that when the New Thing faltered (as Deal put it) in 1973, the dancers kept going, moved eventually to Perry Elementary School at M and First Streets NW.
"It doesn't matter whether you wear the dashiki or do the special handshakes or power signs. The important thing is to pay homage to your ancestors. The traditional African religion of Orisha is a big part of my life, though I don't talk of it. I respect my parents and their Christmas. I keep up relations with the family, cousins and everybody, but I also keep my links with my heritage. It's very African to have respect for the old. There's belief in the past and yet in the future too. You can learn to avoid the pitfalls of the past by studying it."
Deal believes he is possessed by his art. He felt it in elementary school.
"When the parents are concerned about what direction a child will take. the child may fight them and want something different. if they're not concerned: then spiritual forces take over and can do with him as they please."
Four times he has visited Africa, "sponsored by myself," and in May he plans another trip to Sierra Leone, Liberia and maybe Senegal. He makes a living as a performer and teacher in the Washington area and beyond, does workshops for the Northeast Academy and works with such groups as Ebony Impromptu and Theater West. Often his performances are free, especially for children.
Now 35, Deals lives alone, presides regally in a small office just off the big basement practice room where his dancers rehearse. At 6-feet-3, he moves with the watchful grace of a Watusi, speaks softly, fixes a listener with his calm.
His African name: Kwame Omobowale Ochunremi Alibi agyei. "The child who was born on Saturday who returned home and who is beloved of the goddess Ochun: of the adopted families Alibi and Agyei." Ochun is a goddess of beauty and art.
He gave the name over the phone as an afterthought, almost shyly. "Maybe you could put it under thepicture," he said.