By Te-Erika Patterson
HOUSTON DEFENDER, March 11, 2007
A group of more than 200 youngsters at Bellfort Academy are seated on the floor of their school’s multi- purpose room, squirming and giggling in anticipation of a Black History Month treat. The 4th and 5th graders are anxious to experience the zestful performance as African culture meets the down south Texas swagger.
The hollow ruminations of a beating drum silence the talkative pre-teens as the first member of the dance company emerges, his expression playful yet proud. The rest of the dance company soon follows, each clothed in authentic South African attire, their bodies pumping rhythmically to the beat of the drum master.
The Kuumba Dance Company (pronounced koo-oomba) will celebrate 25 years of outreach in the Houston community this March. In celebration of this momentous milestone, Founder and Artistic Director of the Kuumba Dance Company, Lindi Yeni, will host a gala on the 23rd of March at the Holiday Inn Southwest. The gala will honor community members and faithful supporters of the non-profit dance company.
The gala will feature South African Ambassador to the United States, Barbara Masekela as the keynote speaker. Masakela is the sister of legendary jazz musician, Hugh Masekela. Honorees will include Dikembe Mutombo of the Houston Rockets, Audrey Lawson, president Ameritus of the Ensemble Theater and Mr. and Mrs. John Broussard, faithful patrons of Kuumba house among others.
“Twenty-five years ago there really was a void in Houston,” Yeni recalled. “You could tell. No one cultivated and celebrated the African dance movement as an art. My hope was to bring that to the forefront.”
As the years rolled by Yeni watched in amazement as the city of Houston embraced her dance troupe, creating opportunities to perform more than 200 times a year, exposing many African Americans to their first true glimpse of African culture as well as allowing people from other ethnicities to taste the richness of the African people.
Adam Carman, a Caucasian, 27-year old musician, has played the drums with the Kuumba Dance Company for three years.
After a friend encouraged him to audition Carman admits he was a bit shook by the new and intense regimen but he soon developed an even more laudable drumming technique.
“We meet a lot of interesting people. We perform at a lot of charitable events. There is a lot of good that is done through my involvement with this company,” Carman said. “It’s an experience that expands the worldly consciousness. It reminds us that we should open up the lines of communication.”
For school performances such as the one at Bellfort Academy, located in Southeast Houston, where there is an even mixture of ethnic backgrounds, the Kuumba Dance Company tailors the show with a more educational tone. Group members teach the children about language, geography, social and cultural studies through a myriad of story-telling, dance, songs and physical activities.
“We are more than entertainers,” Yeni said proudly. “We are edu-tainers.”
If “edu-tainment” were an Olympic event, The Kuumba House would earn a gold medal. Year after year, Yeni and her dance troupe perform and educate students, and year after year, these students grow older and wiser in the world, but they never forget their Kuumba experience.
Crystal Johnson who has served as the Instructional Coordinator at Bellfort Academy for the past 3 years believes exposure to the Kuumba Dance Company will enhance the students in their personal development.
“Their services are worth so much to the children,” Johnson said. “I have been with this school for the past 3 years and I have invited them to perform every year.”
Debbie Ogabonnaya is a reserved Bellfort Academy 5th grader who wears a white zip down sweater over her blue uniform t-shirt.
“I remember seeing [the Kuumba Dance Company] in 2nd grade, in 4th grade and now in 5th grade,” Ogabonnaya said.
Ogabonnaya’s family is Nigerian which lends a more personal connection to the show. “When I see it, I feel kind of milky (shy) because they are showing a bunch of stuff that I’ve never said to anybody.”
Whether it’s expressed in English or Xhosa, the South African language demonstrated during the Kuumba performance, there is a universal language that speaks to all hearts once the drums begin to play.
“Twenty-five years ago I was more energetic and passionate about what I do,” Yeni reflected on her early days as a hopeful entrepreneur. “I saw myself as a pioneer in this field and a community worker. Twenty-five years later, I am a grandmother. I have slowed down. I see the fruit of my work and I marvel that we actually did accomplish what we set out to accomplish.”
Yeni who is originally from Tietermaritzburg, South Africa will embark on the next leg of her life journey when she voyages to South Africa in June of 2008 on a self professed “calling from God”. She will return to her native land to work with homeless children. She was apprehensive about answering her “call” but since accepting the burden on her heart as a message from God, she has made peace with her decision.
“Non-profits are created to solve a problem. When you have accomplished that, it’s time to step away and move on,” Yeni said. “The problem was that there was a void in African dancing in this city. Kuumba house has made its presence known, and it will continue.”