When Rolia Manyongai-Jones first started teaching at Woodlawn Elementary School in northeast Portland in the early 1980s, she quickly realized that there were no after-school programs for the primarily African-American population of students at the school.
So Manyongai-Jones, who is a native of Liberia, approached her principal with an idea. “I told her, ‘You know, I have a talent,’ ” recalls Manyongai-Jones. “I’ve been dancing since I was 4 years old. In my village I learned traditional African dancing from the village elders. And I think this would be a great talent to share the African culture with students in this school.’”
Despite having no funding to offer, the principal gave the go-ahead for the program, and Manyongai-Jones founded the Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe.
“That first year, I started by teaching them some songs that I learned from the village and showed them steps gradually — a few each week — that were eventually choreographed into a full dance.”
By the second year, the troupe was performing at other schools and events around town, promoting awareness of Africa’s rich cultural traditions.
Now, 30 years later, Manyongai-Jones has retired from teaching, but the program is still going strong. The troupe recently moved from their longtime home at Woodlawn to their own studio space in the basement of the Salvation Army Community Center in northeast Portland. In early June they celebrated the end of their 2012/2013 season with a performance at their annual community celebration event at Self Enhancement, Inc.
The troupe now has an average of 30-40 dancers that participate each year from 13 different schools around the city. Auditions are held in the fall, and the group rehearses twice a week throughout the school year as well as giving 12-14 public performances each year.
Manyongai-Jones says she tries to create an authentic experience for her dancers by recreating how the dances were taught in her own village.
“The villagers would come out and do different movements and they would invite the children to imitate the movements. We were learning from seeing and doing it and if we were not doing it right, they would correct us until we got better.”
A key component of Kúkátónón’s weekly rehearsals is live drumming, which plays an integral part in traditional West African dance.
“The drum is paramount in this type of dancing,” says Kúkátónón drummer and instructor Hakim Rashad-Muhammad. “Each dance that we do has a particular rhythm and song that goes along with it. We try to stick as close as possible to the traditional forms.”
The drums serve as a form of communication within the dance, setting the pace and giving the dancers rhythmic signals that tell them when to change movements. It’s important that students get to experience dancing to live music, says Manyongai-Jones. “That’s why we work really hard to find the funds to pay the artists to come and do their work with the students,” she adds.
Rashad-Muhammad and fellow drummers Derrell (Sekou Soumah) Walker and Catón Lyles perform at rehearsals and serve as instructors along with choreographer Dana Ingram. Rashad-Muhammad also teaches a weekly drumming class for the dancers. “When the kids learn the rhythm on the drum, they can implement it in their dancing and it makes everything that much better.”
For her largely African-American troupe of dancers, Manyongai-Jones says that learning the traditional dances helps them learn about their ancestral backgrounds and develop pride in their cultural roots.
Manyongai-Jones says she’d like to see more participation and support from Portland’s African-American community. Next on her agenda is opening an African community center in Portland to help build more awareness of African traditions.
“We have a large population of Africans living in Oregon and we have a lot of talented artists from Africa, but we are all over the place doing our own thing. [I] hope to bring the cultural traditions of dance, cooking, crafts and clothing under one roof to showcase what makes the African culture unique.”