The biannual Afro-Haitian dance performance is a highly anticipated collection of work done by the students of the African American (AFAM) Studies Department. It was started by Naomi Washington Diouf, known as “Mama Washington,” who ran the program for 50 years. Last year, Mama Washington retired, and although she isn’t running this year’s show, it will be performed in her honor. The AFAM Studies Department got its start when Berkeley residents pushed for their culture and experience as African Americans to be reflected in their kids’ learning. To this day, Berkeley High School (BHS) is the only high school in the country who has a program like this. A smaller program in this department is the Afro-Haitian Dance Program, which teaches performing arts from these cultures to interested students. While also being an incredible space for students to reach their full potential, it also becomes a daily workout for the students who are involved. Classes start out with a warmup that involves cardio and stretching, and are quickly thrown into the dances that range from West African, to the Caribbean islands, and to Latin America.
The amazing teachers who are in charge of this class this year are Tanzia Mucker, nicknamed “Ms. Shorty,” and the new addition to the program, Dr. Dawn Williams. Both women work in tandem to help their dancers reach their fullest potential, support their students, and create a community that has become essential for so many BHS students. Ms. Shorty has been a part of the Afro-Haitian Dance Department for many years now, bringing her wisdom and talent along with her charm to the dance floor. Ms. Shorty has been dancing since she was eight years old, when she attended a dance program for kids of color. Dr. Williams, or Dr. Dub to her students, has been a part of the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) community since she began as a dance teacher at Berkeley Technological Academy. Both teachers have extensive dance background ranging from Orisha, an Afro-Cuban dance descended from the African Diaspora, to tap and ballet. Just by being in the same room as these two incredible teachers, it is easy to see the bond they share. From the way that they work off of each other and seem to be plugged into each other’s emotions and feelings, despite only having met a couple months ago, you can tell that the energy they bring to the class will help their students to succeed in whatever endeavor they pursue.
One such endeavor was the annual winter dance concert that was performed on December 19 on the BHS community stage. The name of the show was “New Beginnings,” due to the variety of things from past performances that were brought to the stage this year for the first time. “It’s a different structure, different generation of dancers, and different disciplines,” Ms. Shorty said. “Overall, we feel and believe that they’ll be prepared, and if all else, they’ll have fun in this space with learning things that are different,” she continued.
As well as it being a new set of performance pieces, there was one iconic face missing from the stage. “This is the first year without Mama Washington, and although her presence will be missed, I see it embodied in Ms. Shorty. I see her as the historical memory, the mental rolodex of Mama Washington, because she has all these historical memories, we are able to blossom and keep this program going,” Dr. Williams said while looking at her coworker.