This photo shows the grace and strength of dancer, choreographer, and educator Kwame Shaka Opare.

Transforming Communities with the Arts

By Jacqueline Lara

The arts have the ability to break down barriers and change lives. Multidisciplinary artist Kwame Shaka Opare knows this well. “Dance and music are healing art forms,” he says. “I’ve seen them bring people and audiences together in ways that transcend all differences.” When all else fails, the arts work.

The award-winning dancer, choreographer, artist educator, and self-taught photographer/videographer uses the arts to address social issues in his community and around the world. With a West African dance-based technique as his foundation, he experiments with different mediums to bring a story to life. “Through my work, I’m trying to provide a perspective of people who have lived through or continue to live through something—whether it be an impoverished, ineffective public education system or a government system that has failed people in times of crisis.” He believes everything we do and every memory we’ve ever had is written in our bodies, and he uses the power of movement to promote understanding.

Opare has received numerous awards for his work; by 21, he had already performed and produced works for all the major traditional African and traditional/contemporary African dance companies in New York. He also toured the world for six seasons with the Broadway show, STOMP. In 2016, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) named him the inaugural recipient of the Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship, which allowed him to study with the National Dance Company of Ghana for three months. When he returned, he debuted at BAM the multimedia work called ".theScope .theWork .theProcess: GHANA."

For seven years, he has worked as a teaching artist, primarily in inner-city public schools, and recently led a professional development workshop at the Kennedy Center for K-12 arts educators during their 2017-2018 season.

LIKE A BLANK CANVAS

Early on, Opare’s dance teachers encouraged him to explore other disciplines, and their message might resonate with other creatives: “You must be dynamic in your approach to your creativity, not just for the business of your art, but also for its fullness to ensure that you are doing your best work. Never stay in one lane, because creativity is connected, and one discipline feeds into the next.”

Nowadays, Opare begins his creative process by studying the social rituals of communities around the world. He often asks himself, “How do we engage with each other? How do we engage with our environment? How do we educate and nurture our youth, treat our elders, and worship or honor spirituality?”

Because he’s most concerned with respecting others’ cultures while accurately transferring what he’s observed to an intended audience, he journals, reads related texts, and captures still and moving visuals to document his experiences. “This is a critical step because all experiences will sink in, but it’s how you access them later when you need to create new work that matters,” he says. Then, he selects musical arrangements and stage production elements hinted with historical, pop-culture, and subculture references to emotionally hook his audience.

ARTISTIC INFLUENCES

A mix of inspiring and tragic events set Opare on this career path. “When I was about eight, I remember being on the side of the stage in the wings, stage right, watching Michael Jackson and his brothers perform. I also talked with them backstage. It’s a memory that stays with me,” he says.

This opportunity was made possible thanks to his late uncle, Rocky Latimer, who worked as a stage manager for a Washington, D.C.-based promotions company. Latimer handled all technical aspects for performances and hired his mother—Opare’s grandmother—as a caterer for the company. Whenever she catered, Opare was at her side. “Watching amazing entertainers and the Jackson 5 the four times they were in the area instilled in me this passion for movement at an early age,” he recalls.

However, at the time Opare was growing up (the 1980s and early ‘90s), drugs began eating away at D.C.’s communities. “My family’s house was on a hot block, so it was easy to get involved in the wrong activities,” he says. In an attempt to redirect him, Opare’s mother took him to a KanKouran West African Dance Company performance, and two friends, Mwandishi Johnson and Jahi Bem Sherard, were onstage. “Something about seeing people my age on this grand stage with lights, costumes, and the whole performance made me realize dance was something I could do.”

Soon after, then 14-year-old Opare joined KanKouran West African Dance Company under the tutelage of Assane Konte and immediately felt a sense of purpose studying with master dancers and collaborating with other young artists. “Dance awakened a part of me that we all have as human beings—the desire to excel at something. Once we’re put inside of the correct environment and afforded the most effective support system, we excel.”

Despite finding a positive outlet in the studio, street culture proved too strong for some. Johnson and Sherard, who danced and drummed with Opare, were both murdered before their 19th birthdays. This was a wakeup call for Opare. In their memory, he founded DishiBem Traditional Contemporary Dance Group in 2003 to bridge the gap between traditional West African and contemporary performance modes.

A NEW BEGINNING

Years later, in a culmination of these experiences, Opare created the work Triumph of Disruption: A Movement to Subvert (TOD) to disrupt the epidemic of failure in the way America educates its youth, especially African-Americans from marginalized communities. He’s witnessed these disparities firsthand, working in some of the toughest inner-city public schools. In TOD, Opare plays a history teacher of African dance and American culture; students from these schools round out the cast. He notes, “By engaging youth to give them a sense of self-worth, and using TOD as a pedagogy of engagement, these young people see their brilliance. It is our responsibility to create environments that allow them to do their best work.” TOD is also a commentary on the have-nots and poor throughout America.

In the summer of 2017, Opare was invited to bring TOD to Peabody Middle School (left) in Petersburg, Virginia, where the school was steps away from losing its accreditation and the community had been marred by trauma. “I know what it feels like to live in a chaotic environment,” he says. “My job is to listen and learn from youth while giving them an opportunity to shine.”

 

The students weren’t dancers or musicians, but by teaching them movement, percussion, and aspects of performance, they began to understand process. Weeks later, the students performed TOD during the Building Community Resilience Summit and received overwhelming support from attendees, the community-at-large, and the entire office of the superintendent. If this is a sign, the future already looks brighter for the Petersburg community.

After working as a teaching artist in a wide range of schools, students repeatedly tell Opare, “Now that I did well in dance, I know I can do well in Algebra and Science.” Students begin interacting more positively with their teachers, and it changes the way they learn and want to be engaged as young people. He’s also found that when students perform in an ensemble fashion, they develop a sense of community and responsibility, which spills into their social lives outside of the classroom.

“Dance saved my life, so this is my way of paying forward this gift that was given to me,” he says.