Weaving Dance and Literacy to Celebrate Diversity and Teach Anti-Racism
We are always delighted to learn when our picture books inspire other forms of art, just as Mira's Curly Hair served as the inspiration for dance company Jean Appolon Expressions (JAE) online dance class for kids. Executive Director Meghan McGrath tells us how the story was a springboard for celebrating diverse cultures, ultimately connecting and empowering children in these challenging times.
Jean Appolon Expressions (JAE) celebrates and advances Haitian folkloric dance by building a contemporary cultural community that produces professional performances, educational opportunities and dance training for people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.
Based in Boston, Massachusetts and directed by Jean Appolon, JAE seeks to fulfill its mission by conducting accessible performances, community classes, and free educational workshops, with the goal of using dance and dialogue to promote healthy communities. JAE preserves Haitian folkloric culture while constantly pushing the art form forward to remain accessible, inspiring, and educational through a strong commitment to the community and remaining deeply rooted in Haitian cultural values. The company prides itself on the diverse circle of dancers, artists, and thinkers that it has built over the years. Striving to bring people together and break down stereotypes, JAE aims to build a community that values all cultures and customs.
On Creative Dance For Kids
JAE recognizes that there is a great need for more diverse early childhood arts programmes (3-8 years old), especially in regard to movement arts. Long time company dancer and early childhood educator, Meghan McGrath, had been eager to partner with Jean Appolon to launch a series of dance offerings for young children that would put forth much more than straight technical ballet, tap and jazz classes and be readily accessible in the Boston area. The virtual classroom space that Covid-19 has made so necessary became an opportunity for JAE to pilot its first offering for young children.
Creative Dance for Kids introduces young children to the art of dance using patterns, movement words, music and storytelling. Haitian Folkloric rhythms and movements are woven into the class in a child-friendly fashion. Each week a different theme is explored and allows young participants to hear about and discuss social justice topics through age-appropriate literature and conversation. Past and future themes include kindness, acceptance, noticing and appreciating differences, identity, standing up against injustice, and love. This class is co-taught by Company Director/Educator Jean Appolon and Executive Director/Dancer/Educator Meghan McGrath.
Sharing Mira’s Curly Hair
Each week, we choose a picture book, or an oral story to share with our Creative Dance students and families. Mira’s Curly Hair written by Maryam Al Serkal and Illustrated by Rebeca Luciani was the perfect story for us to celebrate all kinds of hair and also highlight the emotions that can arise for people with regard to hair. We started the class by simply noticing the different colours, lengths, textures and styles of hair that were present that day in our Zoom classroom. We had people with tight bouncy black curls, long spiraling brown curls, twisting black braids, straight blond hair, no hair, and fluffy pigtails.
Next, we read the first half of the story and really focused on how Mira was feeling in regard to her hair - unhappy, frustrated, wishful and determined. One little dancer, who is in class with us every week, acted out Mira hanging and swaying upside down to try and make her curls “fall out”.
The story inspired the movement and rhythms for the session. We started with a warm-up that embodied the movement words used to describe our participants’ hairstyles: bouncy, spiraling, twisting, straight and fluffy. The kids came up with their own unique moves to express themselves while considering these movement words and had the opportunity to teach one another their moves. After pairing these movements to some music for warm-up, we came back to sit and finish the story. We highlighted how excited and proud Mira felt when her Mama’s hair magically transformed from straight and smooth to free and curling!
The dancers were jumping with delight while hearing this and one even shared aloud “I love my hair and it’s always curling to the sky!”.
We also noted that at times, people can say mean and unkind things about others, just because of their hair and the way they look. Our message to our young dancers is to be brave, strong and try your best to use your words to stand up for yourself and others. Kindness matters. Jean Appolon and his son showed their strength and bravery in this partner dance move!
JAE believes that the mind-body connection is critical for all humans, and especially children, to have meaningful, proactive conversations about anti-racism. This is especially critical for the work needing to be done in white spaces.
Dance can help people more fully process their lived experience and reflect on how their action (and non-action) can affect others. JAE hopes to help its community members foster self-compassion, self-reflection, compassion for others and ultimately an action-oriented way of living.
Thank you, Meghan! And thanks to Michel DeGraff for sharing his photos of the fun his daughter had. Follow JAE on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for up-to-date news on their fantastic dance programmes promoting diversity and anti-racism. Visit them at jeanappolonexpressions.org
Click HERE to purchase a copy of this
delightful celebration of natural hair and the courage it takes to be yourself.
Meghan McGrath is the Executive Director of Jean Appolon Expressions and is an experienced early childhood educator. She holds a M.A. Ed with a focus on the Creative Arts in Learning and has danced professionally for over ten years. Meghan is committed to sharing dance as a tool for building community and working towards a socially and racially just world.