Sounds of Uganda and Rwanda transport Charter School students

The Yard dance project took students on a musical cultural journey to Africa.

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Charter school fifth and sixth graders clap their hands in the air during the Ekizino, the dynamic final performance of the program. — Photo by Siobhan Beasley

The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School in West Tisbury echoed with the sounds of drums and feet. At times over the past three weeks, the thunderous sounds emanating from the fifth- and sixth-grade classroom became so intense that an adjacent math class relocated to a quieter space.

On Thursday, students, teachers, and parents gathered, abuzz with excited anticipation, to see what all of the drumming and thumping coming from the classroom of teacher Amy Reece for the past three weeks was all about. They were treated to dance and drum performances from Uganda and Rwanda. It was all part of a collaboration between The Yard dance studio in Chilmark and the Charter School.

Godfrey Mulwulya, originally from Uganda, along with Jesse Keller and Holly Jones of The Yard, taught the students original dances as part of the school’s program on African history.

The students dressed in colorful costumes that they made themselves, representative of the costumes Ugandan dancers would wear, and shared what they had learned with the community.

In Uganda there are over 57 tribes, all with different dialects, and local dances. As a way to communicate and learn about one another, Ugandan children learn the dances of the neighboring tribes, Mr. Mulwulya explained.

The first group of students performed the Amaraba, a dance originally from Rwanda and now also danced by the Batwa people near the Rwandan/Ugandan border. A second group performed the Gaze, from the West Nile area. And then both groups came together for the Ekizino, a Western Ugandan dance full of stomping, jumping, and clapping, marked by sheer exuberance.

The Ekizino is a “good revenge” dance, Mr. Mulwulya explained: “You stomp so hard into your friend’s floor during the dance that the next time you host a party, the host of the last party will stomp even deeper into your floor!”

Mr. Mulwulya studied dance and music from a very young age. Children learn to dance and sing in the womb, he explained to the children. “When a woman becomes pregnant, all her neighbors gather around to dance and sing and celebrate, so much so that even the little baby inside is dancing and swaying to the music as well,” he said.

At the conclusion of their performance, the students were smiling and a little winded. Asked about their time studying African dance, the children were jubilant.

Ellie Thomas said it was a “great experience.” A grinning Ava Brown had one word to describe it: “Amazing!” And Sophia Grazioso said, “I thought the experience was great. We got to learn about the culture and celebrations of the Ugandan people. It was a great experience, and I loved working with Godfrey!”