Chances are that if city children come home telling their parents that blue jeans and the soul handshake both have African roots, they've met up with Melvin Deal.
The tall, soft-spoken director of the African Heritage Dance Center says that getting black children to realize the parallels between their current Afro-American and historic African cultures is very much on his mind. Through the Heritage Retention workshops Deal runs in the District's public schools and his classes and public performances, the message may be sinking in.
"We reach well over 35,000 children a year with performances, and another 1,200 to 1,500 with workshops where we actually go in and make instruments and talk with students on a one-on-one basis about Africa, and parallel what Africa is now with the Africanisms African ways of doing things that remain in America," said Deal. One of Washington's premier dancers, he was honored recently by the mayor and others for his civic contributions.
Deal said he feels his work with children gives them "an intelligent basis as to what Africa is really all about. We teach dance and music and at the end of the workshop, the children perform for their peers."
His students' African heritage is a secret hidden inside them, waiting to be discovered, he says, and it's his job to show them how to find the links to their past. Workshop students are amazed, he adds, to find out how many Africanisms they've retained despite a 400-year cultural separation from the mother continent.
"A lot of times, I'll wear jeans to the schools, and I'll ask the kids, 'Do I have on anything African today?' " Deal said. "They'll point to my Kente cloth and say, 'Yeah, that's African.' And I'll say 'What about my jeans?" '
Deal then explains to his skeptical young audience that the blue in some blue jeans comes from indigo, a plant indigenous to Africa and Asia that produces a rich dye. He usually brings along a piece of African cloth dyed with indigo and urges students to rub it. Inevitably, some of the dye rubs off on their fingers, and someone will compare the experience with the dye bled by new blue jeans the first time they're washed.
Once the ice is broken, Deal and his apprentices link everyday things with their African equivalents: "Hairstyles: braiding, cornrowing. The way in which we wear our shoes. The way they wear their winter hats -- flopped on the back, or on the side. Jewelery, handshakes . . . various things that they do, how they relate to each other in an African fashion. We discuss these things as a parallel. It gives them a practical, working knowledge of themselves and their heritage."
When Carol Foster, founder of the D.C. Youth Ensemble, talked to her students about attending Deal's workshops, she met some initial resistence.
"I had a hard time at first. . . . They would say, 'I don't want to do that; that's jungle-bunny stuff,' " Foster said. "But Melvin talked to them and they began to feel a part of it, and really understand the concepts of African dance, the African ethic of responsibility to one's larger community and respect for elders."
Rick Jackson, a McKinley High junior and member of the Ensemble, said, "Even if I didn't dance, I'd still want to come here."
Deal says his lessons trickle back to the students' peers and parents. "I have parents calling me on the phone after a workshop saying 'Who are you? . . . I don't know what you did to him, but now he has this thing about Africa, Africa! He wants to go to the museum of African Art , he wants books on Africa."
Many students who are enthusiastic about Deal's Heritage Retention workshops extend the experience by taking free dance classes at his studio after school and on Saturdays. "All they have to do," he says, "is walk in."
William Hasson, director of the Artists in Schools program administered by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, offered Deal an Artist in Residence fellowship to teach dance in the public schools. Deal began his fellowship last year, but because of other obligations, had to postpone finishing the program until this school year. Although his fellowship and stipend (roughly $8,000) end in March, Deal says he'll continue teaching to the end of the year without pay.
Deal's strong commitment is one reason Hasson tapped him in the first place. Usually, Hasson says, resident artists are selected "because of their talents, skills, and general contribution they've made to the community." He said Deal was a good choice, "given that he is one of the premier dancers in the city, and has a dance company that has a cultural perspective from the African continent. . . . With Washington being an international community, we felt that's very important for youngsters to know."
But in the '60s, both ends of the city's black ideological spectrum weren't ready for Deal or his African message.
"We had problems with cultural and political black nationalists in terms of ideology and what we wanted to embrace," Deal recalls. "There were people who said, 'If you don't wear traditional clothes all the time, you're not a nationalist.' And I used to do that, before I learned better. I ran around in sandals in the snow for four years to prove I was an African dancer."
He eventually concluded that "it's not the physical manifestation, but what's inside."
And he found that traditional African dress alienated much of Washington's black middle-class. "There was a time when the bourgeoisie wouldn't come near this place . . . but we remained and survived."
Deal says that today he doesn't have time to let himself get bogged down in ideological disputes. "I'm a practicalist, a realist."
He says he has two important tasks in the immediate future. The first is to increase his base of funding to permit the Center to do more with District youth and to demonstrate to his students that culture isn't only the opera, ballet and symphony. Performance fees cover about 75 percent of the Center's financial needs, allowing Deal to offer free classes to youngsters up to age 17.
Deal said his second, perhaps more important, task is to balance the tinsel, glitter and other-worldliness of television's influence on young blacks with a cultural reference point, an African anchor for black children to grasp when they start to wonder where they fit in.
He will continue his workshops regardless of funding, he said, "to show kids that they can have the now and keep the past and have an even brighter future -- all at the same time."