Melvin Deal, founder of the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, remembers the stares and insults he got back in 1959, when he was one of the first in Washington to wear dashikis and a six-inch-high Afro. He likes to tell about the time an elderly woman on a city bus glared at his hairdo and said, "You look like a woolly sheep. You are a disgrace." Times have changed, and so has Deal. He said he no longer feels compelled to dress a certain way to demonstrate his heritage. But he still feels it's important to teach young black and white people about African culture and traditions. On Saturday, Deal's African Heritage Dancers and Drummers troupe will celebrate its 30th anniversary with an 8 p.m. performance in the auditorium of the University of the District of Columbia's Van Ness Campus. A choir from Imani Temple, founded by the Rev. George A. Stallings Jr., will be among performers marking the occasion. Deal started the troupe at age 17 while a freshman at Howard University. He said he wanted to teach self-esteem to disadvantaged children in Washington's inner city neighborhoods. The idea took hold, and over the years, hundreds of local youths and adults have participated in Deal's dance program, which operates out of an old storefront at 4016 Minnesota Ave. NE. The troupe of about 35 dancers of all ages now has spawned other similar dance groups. "We're here just trying to save these kids' lives," Deal said. "Some of these kids' backgrounds are unbelievable. It's a miracle just getting them on stage." Once he does, Deal uses the experience to teach them that they can control their destinies. "It says if I can accomplish this . . . I can accomplish other things in my life." Having established a forum, Deal uses it also to stress traditional values such as academic excellence, virginity, staying away from drugs, weight control and respect for elders, ancestors and self. He said he knows he has managed to reach many youngsters and points with pride to one young man working for D.C. Council member John Ray (D-At Large) and to others in college. "It's a matter of getting them to go inside and realize that there's a person inside," said Deal. "Dance helps to reinforce the aspect of self that {a young person} is doubting." Dance, Deal tells his students today, can be an alternative to drugs, alcohol, overeating and other temptations. "When you spin in a circle . . . there is a vertigo or a euphoria that is created," he said. "You can get high off of dancing." Ron Friday, the young man who now works for Ray, played drums in the troupe for seven years. "It probably has taught me more self-awareness of who I am, where I came from and what I owe to society." The troupe, which until 1973 was sponsored by churches and social service groups, is largely self-supporting but gets about a quarter of its annual $60,000 budget from city, federal and private grants. Deal said that despite hard-fought successes, he thinks his troupe has never received the funding it deserves. "Because it's black oriented. Because it's desiring to build self-esteem. People say, 'It's dangerous stuff. Don't touch it,' " he said. Deal said the troupe is significant because it was a groundbreaker and helped win acceptance for black art forms when African dance wasn't respected. "If you didn't do ballet or modern dance or some other European perspective, then you weren't doing art," he said. African Heritage Dancers and Drummers "was the first. The absolute first." "Melvin was in the vanguard of the African-American cultural experience in this town," said Barnett Williams, who played drums, taught in the troupe, and later performed with the late Donny Hathaway and others. " "You can't even imagine how many young people came through the studio seeking their blackness, trying to recapture their identity." James K. Zimmerman, a program coordinator with the D.C. Commission on the Arts, applauds Deal's model for others. "He has a strong social service mission as well as dance," he said. "It's a dual mission."