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St. Louis Catholic Academy third-grader Jakiya Durham danced during an after-school program featuring West African drumming and dancing Jan. 17 at the school, located in the Penrose neighborhood of north St. Louis. The lessons help build student confidence and contribute to improved concentration in the classroom, said Chinaza Uwizéyé, who leads the lessons.
St. Louis Catholic Academy third-grader Jakiya Durham danced during an after-school program featuring West African drumming and dancing Jan. 17 at the school, located in the Penrose neighborhood of north St. Louis. The lessons help build student confidence and contribute to improved concentration in the classroom, said Chinaza Uwizéyé, who leads the lessons.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

Lessons in African dance, drums at St. Louis Catholic Academy teach students culture, coordination, and concentration skills

Family-owned Jahfi Studio teaches after-school lessons to students

The rhythmic beat from wooden dunun drums pulsed as Sahfi Uwizéyé formed her group of students into three lines.

With the rattle of an accompanying shekere, a percussion instrument made from a gourd and covered with woven beading, she guided the students: Bend the right knee, followed by stepping forward, heel to toe. Then do the same with the left leg. Forward, right, left. Forward, right, left.

About two dozen students at St. Louis Catholic Academy had assembled in the gymnasium after school on a recent January afternoon. They were deep into their first dance lesson of the semester with Jahfi Studio, a local, family-owned program that teaches West African dancing.

Jahja Uwizéyé, 17, played the dunun drums next to St. Louis Catholic Academy third-graders Major Shumate and Skylar Shumate during an after-school program featuring West African drumming and dancing Jan. 17 at St. Louis Catholic Academy in St. Louis.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
Chinaza Uwizéyé, known as “Mama Chinaza,” earlier greeted the students with an uluation, a high-pitched, rhythmical sound commonly expressed in African nations. Behind her, Uwizéyé’s son, Jahja, 17, played a large wooden djembe drum, as his sister, Sahfi, 16, twisted and turned her body in time with the rhythm. Afterward, she led the students in a warmup to stretch their bodies.

This is the first year that St. Louis Catholic Academy, located in the Penrose neighborhood of north St. Louis, has offered an African dance class to aftercare students. The lessons build student confidence and contribute to improved concentration in the classroom, Chinaza Uwizéyé said. African dance is polyrhythmic, which involves movement of multiple body parts at the same time and builds coordination skills.

“It helps with your focus and your discipline,” she said. “You’re learning your left from your right and you don’t really realize it; you’re working with both sides of your brain. It’s also a lot of fun and a way helping them to learn inside of a classroom without actually being inside of the classroom. So when their brains are relaxed, the information goes in a lot better.”

The children also have the opportunity to learn more about African culture. Students are learning traditional West African drum and dance, along with some words and phrases in Creole.

“This is their culture, and we are giving them what is already inside of them,” Jahja Uwizéyé said. “Most of these kids have never been exposed to any kind of African drum or African dance — but as you can see, they all participate.”

At the end of every class, the Uwizéyé family shares a Creole saying with the students: “To dwa krò en tominm, to pli brav to kalkil, to gin pli talèn to konné, pli to pi kapab to krò,” which translates to, “you must believe in yourself, and when you believe in yourself, the more brave and talented you are and are more capable than you can imagine.”

Third-grader Diaria Brinker is learning how to ice skate outside of school, and she said the dance classes help her to better focus on coordination and movement.

“I feel like I’m free,” Diaria said. “I just chill out and feel relaxed.”

David Grays-Wells, also a third-grader, said the classes also help him to feel at ease. Plus, he enjoys learning with his classmates. “It’s very fun and exciting,” he said. “It makes me feel happy. I really like the music and the sound of the drums.”

Sahfi Uwizéyé said the movements are kinesthetically correct, which helps students better coordinate their body movement and, in turn, serves as a stress-releaser. “School is sometimes stressful for the kids, and that’s why we have this after-school program,” she said. “After you get done dancing, you go home and you feel a lot better after the school day.”

African dance and drumming has been a positive experience for the students and enhances their academic performance, said Tango Walker, dean of students at St. Louis Catholic Academy.

“The experience that our students are receiving not only provides a fun and engaging way to learn about our culture, it also promotes physical fitness, coordination and teamwork,” she said, adding that the instructors “bring a flair and style that keeps the students’ attention. Our students are taught to be their authentic selves and how to perform with confidence.”

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