A School-wide Dance Residency Done Right

Photo by Gene Mayeda, courtesy of Wheeling High School

What would your ideal one-day residency look like? Last summer, when Masankho Banda notified me he would be in Chicago, I started dreaming of what a residency day with him could be for all students, not just the dancers, at Wheeling High School in Illinois.

From Malawi in Central Africa, Banda is an activist, refugee, storyteller, drummer, dancer and gifted humanitarian, who has been a colleague for decades through InterPlay, a worldwide community for movement. Staff and administration trusted my recommendation, and we assembled a team to start planning. Funding was pooled among social studies, English, dance, Arts Unlimited and student groups. Each department shared ideas and finances, which created a collective excitement.

In mid-January we were able to bring this vision to life when almost 1,000 students experienced a day of drumming, dance, cultural sharing and community-building with Banda.

Schedule for the Day

Period 1: Banda taught African drumming to student and staff percussionists.

Periods 2 and 3: African dance class combined with all curricular dance students accompanied by the percussionists.

Periods 5 and 6: Two storytelling theater presentations for sophomores and freshmen (world literature/cultural identity…"tell your story").

Periods 7 and 8: Lunch/discussion with leaders from student service clubs.

First up: Students witnessed more than 150 dancers and 14 percussionists dancing and drumming in the gym—it was inspiring. "The experience showed how music can build a community and bridge gaps between others," says Anabel Perez-Brennan, percussionist.

"We have a limited African-American population, but to see students' joy as they danced to the beat of the drums and singing of Masankho said it all. They were proud," adds principal Jerry Cook.

Next up were storytelling presentations in our theater. Banda's personal journey resonated with our large immigrant population. As he began singing and drumming, instinctively students from the dance class sang along, which encouraged others to join in.

"His 'Dance of Yes! Inde' song was powerful. It was amazing watching the students sing 'I deserve to take up space without apology' and 'my thoughts and words matter,'" says Angela Hawkins, head of the social science and world language division.

We finished the day with lunch and discussion for 20 student service-club leaders. "It was great having time to talk about what we want to do and listening to stories that inspired all of us," says dancer Kevin Rendon.

Ebony Club members were Banda's "ambassadors" and spent the day with him. "As Masankho's ambassador, it taught me how dance and music bring people of all ages and colors together," club member Kiannah Hayes says.

It's unusual to have a guest capable and willing to do this much in one day, but each activity naturally fed into the next. Timothy Piatek, head of the English and fine arts department, agrees. "Banda was able to deliver a beautifully unique experience for both WHS students and staff," he says.

Having known Masankho for decades, it was fulfilling for me to have him share his story and gifts with students and colleagues in such an authentic way.

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