For 41 years, Melvin Deal -- one of the city's living monuments -- has been using traditional African values to promote cultural awareness and build self-esteem among disadvantaged youth. Forty-one years of pouring libation, of calling on the elders, of dancing and drumming and celebrating the community. And since the problems many of his students face nowadays have only gotten worse -- with drugs, crime and poverty often pervasive factors -- Deal says he'll keep at it another 41 years if he can.
"Our major benchmark has always been the saving of the lives of young people, through the arts," says Deal.
Deal has trained thousands of children as members of his ensemble, the African Heritage Dancers & Drummers. His is one of the oldest dance organizations in the city, and the first to focus on African arts. Through dancing and drumming, Deal strives to teach children discipline, respect and the benefits of healthy living. But to get them through the door of his African Heritage Center on Minnesota Avenue NE for the first time, he's had to be savvy. He says he recruits the kids the way drug dealers do.
"We use peer recruitment," says Deal. "We say, `If you know somebody who's not doing anything after school, bring him by.' The kids get to travel, see things. We're like their family. They get hooked and they come."
The troupe's crowning event is its annual production. On Monday they perform an anniversary concert and Kwanzaa celebration, highlighting the tradition of the jali, or oral historian. In the African custom, the jali is the keeper of values, the repository of the culture. It's a role Deal has assumed for himself.
"Someone once asked me, how come you never age?" says Deal, who is 58. "Time stands still inside of this studio. When you walk through that door you are in ancient Africa. You are in a spiritual space. It's nurturing. Every day we drum, and call the ancestors. We do the ancient dances. There's the spirit of God and the ancestors, the incense, the bells, the costumes, the drums. It's like a time capsule.
"A lot of the kids come in with the weight of the world on them and they leave with hope," he continues. "It's a healing space."
AFRICAN HERITAGE DANCERS & DRUMMERS -- 41st Anniversary and Kwanzaa Celebration, Monday at 7:30 p.m. at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, Sixth and Fairmont streets NW. $10. Call 202/806-7914.