Boys in traditional African shirts and girls in colorful Mexican skirts roamed the halls of Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts. Just around the corner in the auditorium, their families from both the North and South sides of Milwaukee waited for the performance to begin.
Milwaukee Public Theatre’s Bembé Drum and Dance students from Roosevelt Middle School, 800 W. Walnut St., and Bruce Guadalupe Community School, 1028 S. 9th St., came together recently for a show called Journey the Atlantic. They were joined by Ton Ko Thi Children’s Dance Ensemble and Salsabrositas, a Latin youth dance group.
The goal of the performance was to bridge African and Latino cultures while showcasing how the kindergarten through eighth grade students have progressed.
“If you were born in Milwaukee, if you grew up in Milwaukee, you probably have seen a lot of segregation in our city. So it was extremely important for us to find a commonality between these two schools and these students, and one of those commonalities is drum and dance,” said Nicole Acosta, Bembé program coordinator.
Bembé Drum and Dance’s North Side location at Roosevelt Middle School serves mainly African-American students, while its location at Bruce Guadalupe Community School on the South Side primarily teaches Latin-American students. Children on the North Sde are exposed to techniques from Latin America, and those on the South Side learn rhythms from Africa.
Acosta said there are approximately 60 students in the program from both schools, and about 100 people were in the audience at the show.
After hours of practice and hard work, sharing the stage was a way to honor both cultures and a chance for students to perform the beats and steps they had been learning all year.
“For them to come together and play with kids from other schools and other companies and other organizations, it’s pretty powerful,” said Bony Plog Benavides, Bembé percussion instructor.
“We live in a society that needs to see diversity and needs to see that arts are important,” added Carlos Adames, Bembé percussion instructor.
Amylie Perez, a Bembé dancer from Bruce Guadalupe Community School, said she loves being a part of the program. It makes her feel like a professional dancer, but she said that most importantly, she gets “to keep the tradition alive.”
In addition to educating youth about their own and other cultures, Bembé Drum and Dance provides children with opportunities to explore their dreams.
“At Milwaukee Public Theatre, part of our mission is that representation matters. What we’re doing with our students is not only showing them this curriculum, but we’re also saying ‘Hey, you can do this too. When you get older maybe this is a career path for you.’ … They could be teachers in the future,” Acosta said.
When the show was over, students celebrated on stage with their teachers, dancing side by side to the popular Spanish song, Mi Gente. Now they get to do it all over again. Their last performance of the year is on June 1.
Plog-Benavides said she felt pride, satisfaction and relief as the night ended. She said she is grateful to work with her students.
“We have very committed and engaged young people in this city who are really proud of who they are. They are really learning their cultures [and] traditions and passing them on.”