Troupe learn about world through song and dance

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Mark Jor­dan

Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

At a re­cent re­hearsal for “The Sound of Joy,” the up­com­ing Christ­mas pro­gram by the Afro-cen­tric chil­dren’s troupe Wa­toto dé Afrika Per­form­ing En­sem­ble, group founder and di­rec­tor Don­ald O’Con­ner stopped his kids in the mid­dle of a dance set to the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Glo­ria Este­fan’s “Mi Tierra.”

“I want you to think about the story the song is telling as you dance,” O’Con­ner told his dozen young charges, looking for an emo­tional re­sponse to one par­tic­u­lar lyric in the song, a bit­ter­sweet trib­ute to Este­fan’s home­land of Cuba. “When you lower your head on that line, imag­ine you have fam­ily still liv­ing in Cuba un­der the Cas­tro regime.”

You can see the kids — in this piece all teenage girls — think it over, and then they try it again, giv­ing the sec­tion in ques­tion a po­tent glance of solem­nity be­fore erupt­ing again in joy­ous con­vul­sions. Un­der the pa­tient guid­ing hand of O’Con­ner, a dance has be­come more than en­ter­tain­ment, it has be­come a way for its young per­form­ers to think about them­selves and their world in new and ex­cit­ing ways.

Those are the kinds of lessons O’Con­ner has been teach­ing area African-Amer­i­can youth for 22 years. A for­mer song­writer and mu­si­cian who worked with artists like Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, and Earth, Wind & Fire, the Mem­phis na­tive founded Wa­toto in 1987, ini­tially as a pro­gram to help curb tru­ancy. But over the years O’Con­ner has found the per­form­ing arts, specif­i­cally a cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant form that res­onates with his kids, could help ad­dress a num­ber of chil­dren’s is­sues, in­clud­ing be­hav­ioral prob­lems, obe­sity and aca­demics.

“With th­ese kids, they don’t know enough about her­itage,” O’Con­ner says. “They’re learn­ing method is not to sit down and read a book. It’s a hands-on method, which is an oral method. So I brought back an oral method of teach­ing. Ev­ery­thing they do has a his­tor­i­cal com­po­nent to it.”

O’Con­ner es­ti­mates some 3,000 chil­dren have passed through the ranks of Wa­toto. Cur­rently he works with 172 kids, rang­ing in age from 3 years old to high school se­niors.

“It’s bet­ter than bal­let and tap be­cause you ac­tu­ally learn things about the world in­stead of just learn­ing the moves,” says Ju­lia Bog­gan, 13, who has been with Wa­toto for a lit­tle over a year. “We learn lead­er­ship and his­tory as well as how to dance and per­form and just how to present your­self on stage.”

On Fri­day, Bog­gan and the rest of the best of Wa­toto dé Afrika, known as the Wa­toto dé Africa Per­form­ing En­sem­ble, will put what they’ve learned on dis­play at the Cen­ter for South­ern Folk­lore as part of a spe­cial Christ­mas pro­gram, “The Sound of Joy.” The pro­gram is the first pro­duc­tion in a new part­ner­ship be­tween the two cul­tural or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“We’ve known each other for years, and fi­nally I re­al­ized we needed to do stuff to­gether,” says the cen­ter’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Judy Peiser, who first fea­tured Wa­toto at this year’s South­ern Mu­sic & Her­itage Fes­ti­val. “To talk about cul­ture you don’t just talk about it, you have to present it in ways that peo­ple ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence it.”

Fea­tur­ing a se­lec­tion of pieces from the Wa­toto reper­toire — with mu­sic in­clud­ing Ne­gro Spir­i­tu­als, Afro-Cuban num­bers, and Cab Cal­loway — O’Con­ner says “The Sound of Joy” is not hol­i­day spe­cific but should be a ju­bi­lant cel­e­bra­tion, none­the­less.

“It’s a show about how mu­sic is used to cel­e­brate our lives and our pasts,” he says. “That’s a mes­sage that takes on par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance this time of year.”

Wa­toto in par­tic­u­lar, has a lot to cel­e­brate. The group re­cently moved into a new Down­town fa­cil­ity, the Wa­toto Mem­phis Youth De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter at 55 S. Main, which O’Con­ner hopes will help them reach new kids as well as add to the over­all vi­brancy of Down­town.

O’Con­ner is also con­tin­u­ing to de­velop “Wel­come to Fun­zville,” a pro­posed tele­vi­sion show fea­tur­ing the Fun­zzies, Wa­toto’s troupe for chil­dren in grades 3-5, which will also make an ap­pear­ance at Fri­day’s con­cert. Work­ing in co­op­er­a­tion with chil­dren’s singer-song­writer Dan Zanes, whose mu­sic pro­vides much of the sound­track, O’Con­ner has been shoot­ing a pi­lot for the show, which he hopes to have com­plete in the spring in time for a Fun­zzies tour of chil­dren’s mu­se­ums.

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