Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Melvin Deal Appears in People's District

Dancing Griot Discusses His Work With Community Youth

People's District founder, Danny, travels from ward to ward, neighborhood to neighborhood seeking stories. His findings, pieced together in his blog, form a living portrait of humanity, as poignant as it is raw. He doesn't look for subjects, but for friends, and fellow citizens. He does not ask questions; he listens and reports. The stories do not always glisten and shine, but they serve as a reminder that DC is populated by regular, everyday, unique, multi-dimensional characters. People's District lets readers get to know the city without giving them so much that they are not encouraged to go out and see it for themselves. 

Humanities Council honoree Melvin Deal was recently featured on the blog, discussing his work as a community youth leader, dance teacher, and cultural anthropologist. Deal, from his African Heritage Dance Center in Anacostia (formerly located in Deanwood), has helped countless children care escape neglect and self-doubt, encouraging them, through the performing arts, to be successful in all aspects of their lives. Click here for more information of the film, Dancing Griot: The Life and Legacy of Melvin Deal, funded, in part, through a Humanities Council of Washington, DC 30th Anniversary Special Grant. And check out the story and images captured by People's District inside Deal's Southeast dance studio.

As he continues to seek-out the agents of grassroots history, heritage, and culture in Washington, DC, Danny will doubtless encounter many individuals who have been affiliated with the Humanities Council. The People's District is an impressive digital humanities project and we applaud the effort to preserve the District's collective memory.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Exploring Congress Heights

Pick Up a Copy of this Informative DC Community Heritage Project Brochure

The Congress Heights Community Association, and the Anacostia Coordinating Council recently showcased their DC Community Heritage Project, Exploring Congress Heights, and the distribution campaign for the informative brochure is well underway.

The group printed an initial run of 6,000 copies for distribution throughout the city, and a second edition is due to follow. The pamphlet provides a timeline of the community, and describes some of the unique cultural landmarks which still connect residents and visitors to the history of the community. The brochure highlights Henson's farm, a tract of land belonging to a manumitted slave who purchased his own freedom and that of his family in 1813. Though the demographics of the neighborhood would fluctuate in subsequent decades, Henson and his extended family were such a strong early presence in the community that his descendants are still in the neighborhood today.

The brochure also features: St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Old Congress Heights School, the First Post Office building, and homes designed by noted African-American architect Lewis W. Giles, Sr. Look for physical copies of the brochure to be distributed in a public library, school, or business near you soon, or if you've lost your copy, visit the Humanities Council's DC Digital Museum to download it in PDF format.

Project Director: Phillip Pannel and
Project Scholar: Dr. Joy Kinard
The second run of the brochure will incorporate additional feedback from the community regarding the accepted borders of the neighborhood - a subject that causes contention in all communities with a strong sense of history. As you review the brochure, drop back by this blog post and leave comments. Where are the boundaries of Congress Heights? What are the significant historical moments? Who were the community leaders? How do we use this heritage to continue improving the community.

For more information on Congress Heights, check out these sources:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fifteen Minutes with Beverly Lindsay-Johnson

HCWDC Intern Ashley Portillo Interviews A Champion of DC's Native Dance

Visit to learn about Hand Dance, the officially recognized dance of Washington, DC. Find out more about Ms. Lindsay-Johnson's most recent project, "Hand Dance: A Capitol Swing," at our 4th Annual DC Community Heritage Project Showcase on Wednesday, December 8. You are guaranteed to learn something new about DC at this FREE program and reception! RSVP today!. 

Image Courtesy: National Hand Dance
Q: For someone unfamiliar with the Hand Dance, could you explain what it is and why it is important to DC culture and history?

A: Hand Dance is a contemporary swing-style-partner dance with roots in Lindy Hop and Jitterbug. It has been almost a 60-year social dance form. It has gone through a series of evolutions per generation, but started out as more of a swing-style dance rooted on the ground. Then, in the 1950s, because of the more up-tempo music, the foot dance evolved to a faster pace. Then, in the 60s, the style cooled itself out with the advent of Blues music. The footwork was a cooler style- more “cool”, I guess you could say. Then, during the disco era, the dancing was more freestyle. And in the early 90s, Hand Dance made a comeback. Actually, in 1993 the Smithsonian Institution recognized Hand Dance as an American Art Form. This support really helped revive this type of dance because all of a sudden it just started to explode! Because back then in the 50s and 60s, everyone was doing it- mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, kids and grandparents alike. But then, in the 1990s, a revival started to occur. Yet, this time it was a clash between a more freestyle 90s dance with the more structured form the older generations had learned. The dance that we had in the 90s was all about presentation and choreography and you began to see a clash between the two styles of Hand Dance. This is all very important because it is the official dance of the nation’s capital, which is still practiced today in the swing-dance clubs. In the Hand Dance clubs today, you see an improvised type of Hand Dancing. You see a similar structure, but not as much choreography.

Q: Is the improvised form more difficult than the choreographed Hand Dance?

A: Absolutely not. Once you master the man-to-woman indication by way of the movements he makes with his hand or arm, the woman just has to know what those non-verbal communications indicate. She needs to know what those body movements and motions indicate; but all of these styles, whether choreographed and structured or improvised in the clubs, carry the same rule of thumb.

Q: What are some of the challenges you face in trying to preserve or archive the Hand Dance?

A:  Well, they have old-school Hand Dance of the 50s and 60s and there is the contemporary Hand Dance of now. Washington, though, is so unique that you have the older generations at 50 to 60 years old and 70 to 80 years old dancing the Hand Dance. And now, our sociology is so much different than ever before, so the youth is doing it too and they have so much movement. They add to it with their hip-hop twist. The music has changed and the older generation doesn’t always agree with it. But this has taken place in all types of artistic cultures. There’s a pull from the older generation trying to preserve the original Hand Dance. The National Hand Dance Association tries the best that it can to fuse the two together because the older generation understands that change is inevitable. And it respectfully accepts this in order for the dance to continue and not die out. I always say that there has to be change. There has to be an evolution because the music changes and music is what fuels the dance.

Q: Your programs at NHDA have a dual focus: hand dancing as an art form and as a community service. What are some ways in which it is seen as a community service?

A: Well, we’re educating the public on the history of the District of Columbia and African American history and dance. Also, we are teaching the etiquette that comes with the dance and not only that but the cosmic resolution. You have so many young people that have learned it, mastered it, and immersed themselves in the dance. Many have said that this dance has changed their lives completely. I think there has been a social breakdown in contemporary dances- something is missing in them. So we try hard to introduce the Hand Dance to the youth, which is why we have a Youth Chapter.

Q: How did you become interested in and involved with the Hand Dance? 

A: Well… (laughs), I’m originally from New York City and have been in DC since 1977. In the 90s, I was introduced to the Hand Dance when I saw it for the first time. I went to this popular Hand Dance club, Eclipse, and saw this dance form I wasn’t familiar with. I was an oldies and boogie fanatic. Not a fan- a FANATIC (laughs)! I saw this dance and noticed it wasn’t just a dance. I was watching the people and it was amazing to see the dancers smiling to each other. The men were asking the women to dance with them, and then they were taking these women back to their seats (when the dance was over)! These clubs are the safest to be at because it’s a community. So I decided to produce a documentary and I featured the Hand Dance. I became ingratiated in the culture. The more you’re in it, the more you see it as a family. This was back in 1996 when I started as a historian for the NHDA and then became vice president. I’ve been with the NHDA ever since and now I am the president (laughs).

All of the 2010 DCCHP grantees will be recognized at a special showcase held at the Tifereth Israel Congregation in Northwest on December 8th. The Council produced three videos, each combining a collection of grantee interviews or documentary clips that will describe the grantee projects and explain how they were developed. These videos will be shown at the Grantee Showcase, and each organization will have the opportunity to set up a display, to further explain their projects to the attendees. The DCCHP Grantee Showcase is a free, public event. Click here to register.

DCCHP project sponsors and partners include: the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service Office of Historic Preservation, the D.C. Office of Planning and Historic Preservation, the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, DC Historic Preservation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.