Dance group grows by leaps and bounds
Donna Cannon watches a rehearsal of the dance group Kuumba Kids Feb. 13, 2013 at Longfellow School in Oak Park. Cannon, mother of three Longfellow students, started the dance group that will perform Feb. 22 at the school's Black History Month celebration. | Rob Hart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 21, 2013 10:50AM
OAK PARK — A student stumbles, seemingly trying to make both her legs move to the same side at the same time.
Donna Cannon sings out the beat of the music to which 21 girls dance on the stage at Longfellow Elementary School.
Seeing the girl struggle with the movements, Cannon stops the other girls and breaks down in slow motion how the arms and legs work together.
“Two counts per foot,” she stressed.
Her patience with the students -- and the lively African and Caribbean repertoire -- are why the number of Longfellow students enrolled in Cannon’s Kuumba Kids program has nearly doubled since last school year.
Kuumba Kids, including a stepping performance in the black fraternity style by six boys, will perform Feb. 22 at Longfellow’s sixth annual Black History Month Celebration. Kuumba Kids also typically performs throughout the spring at ethnic festivals, churches and even WNBA games.
A native of Barbados who moved to the U.S. in 1994 when she was 19, Cannon has studied dance since the age of three. She continued her dance studies, including ballet, jazz and tap, with various U.S. dance companies.
A mother of three Longfellow students, Cannon started Kuumba Kids about six years ago after the school’s African-American PTO gauged the interest of students performing African dance for the school’s Black History Month program.
Six students signed up that year. Today, there are 40.
“My goal really is to bridge and their everyday academics,” said Cannon, who runs similar programs through the Institute for Positive Education in Chicago Public Schools.
The dance, she added, boosts the students’ classroom learning. For instance, counting the steps reinforces math; the geography and history of each dance selection learned enhances their lessons in social studies; and the students are exposed to a broader range of music.
Several white and Hispanic students also are enrolled in Kuumba Kids with their African-American schoolmates.
“My personal opinion is we’re all Africans. We’re all of African descent,” Cannon said. “I would hope those who are not of African descent or not considered African-American because of the color of their skin, they are learning about a culture that is not theirs.”
Cannon said her dream is to expand the program to other District 97 schools and maybe even to Oak Park-River Forest High School.
Mary DuBoyce enrolled her daughters, fourth-grader Anaya, 9; second-grader Arielle, 8; and pre-schooler Naomi, 5, in Kuumba Kids a couple of years ago after seeing the dancers perform at a program with the school’s choir, The Larks.
“We’ve done ballet and hip hop. They just gravitate towards this. You don’t have to force them to go,” she said.
DuBoyce, who is white, said Kuumba Kids also helps her daughters, who are African-American, stay ethnically connected with their birth ancestry.
“Personally as a mother being in a transracial family, I embrace that they’re doing this,” she said. “I don’t know whether I would have thought to do it if my daughters weren’t black.”