Teaching Black history through words and dance


Noni Jones, center, teaches a group of audience members and dancers a traditional African dance called Sinte during the Black History Outside the Book: An Afternoon of Dance at the Alachua County Library Headquarters, in Gainesville on Sunday.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 7:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 7:49 p.m.

Nearly 100 people gathered on the fourth floor of the Alachua County Headquarters Library Sunday for Black History Outside the Book: An Afternoon of Dance. Local dance troupes performed at the event, showcasing traditional African styles in honor of Black History Month.

African dancer and teacher Noni Jones headed off the event with participation from the audience. Dressed in brightly colored African print, Jones explained the steps to a traditional African dance, move by move. She showed variations in specific moves by region, identifying the differences between renditions from Senegal, South Africa, West Africa and more.

A small group joined her in front of the audience. Teaching as she danced, Jones shouted, “Throw your head back!” to the group. The impromptu dancers ended the routine with their arms raised high in the air, their fingers pointing toward the ceiling.

Master of ceremonies and public services administrator Phillis Filer said this year the event decided to focus on dance rather than bringing in other cultural mediums. Filer said the participatory format of the event allowed those involved to feel a kind of kinship with each other.

“One of the things about our culture is the fact that it’s always like a call-and-response type thing. Getting people involved in it makes them feel an ownership in the whole thing that’s going on,” Filer said.

Next, a group of three young men, dressed in crisp white shirts and gloves assembled together in front of the crowd. The Devine Gentlemen, composed of Devanté Moody, Jordan Clark and Brian King, used dramatic gestures to dance to music.

In between acts, Filer quizzed the audience about influential figures in black history. She held up a series of figurines such as Frederick Douglass and Francis Harper, explaining the unique contributions of each to American history.

“It’s important to share history with young people,” Filer told the audience. “Because if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to have your past repeat itself.”

The LaVern Porter Dancers took their positions while Filer talked. Young children and adults lined up in black leotards with bright cloths tied around their heads and waists. The troupe performed three dances, with moves ranging from traditional African dancing to contemporary modern dance.

Filer said events like Black History Outside the Book help children learn about history that they may have never had access to.

“Unfortunately in the schools, even today, black history is not being taught. And that’s pretty bad because kids are not understanding or getting a whole view of how history was. America is a melting pot, people come from all over and each group contributes to making America what it is, but a lot of times segments of it are marked out and you don’t really find out,” Filer said.

After the LaVern Porter Dancers completed their final number, Filer read a selection called “Where Would We Be Without Black People?” The poem tells the story a young boy who discovers the historical impacts of black people in America by realizing all of the inventions and accomplishments that were first proposed by black figures.

Filer said recognizing the importance of these figures help children realize their own potential.

“You’ve got so many people that are out there that history has forgotten, or it doesn’t get the recognition that it should, so kids don’t get that information. And they don’t know how good they can be, and that’s important, that our children know that you can be anything,” Filer said.

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