SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Skidmore College is well-known for its hands-on approaches to education. Recently, the music department presented an example of this with a show by Dr. Ruth Opara’s class on “African Drumming and Dancing.”
Opara has been at Skidmore for two years and has taught this class every semester. Skidmore college has a tradition of West African drumming, so the class is an easy fit for the music department’s curriculum.
For Opara, the decision to teach the class on a regular basis was an easy one.
“I grew up singing, dancing, and drumming,” she said. “My PhD is in African music. This is what I do.”
After welcoming everyone to the performance, Opara’s students came onto the stage playing drum rolls. They were dressed in traditional African costumes, which Dr. Opara had made in her office using fabric purchased from Nigeria with a sponsorship through Skidmore. Everyone was barefoot and wore bells around their ankles and a necklace of large orange beads. Some wore facepaint in traditional African designs.
They took their places and welcomed the audience into the world of the African traditional religion.
Over the course of the show, the audience was introduced to five key characters from the African traditional religion. Each character was a representation of a deity in the religion. Included in each character’s presentation was a narration of the importance of the African traditional religion and how it reflects and shapes the world today.
Then came drum rolls to bring the character to the front of the stage, a folk song and dance for each character, and a more elaborate dance featuring more of the performers.
The characters presented in the show were: The Sorcerer, who takes many forms and performs many tasks before going through a cycle of death and rebirth; The Moon Goddess, who brings balance to all things and cools the African plains with her breezes; The God of Harvest and Hunting, who is the strongest of all the gods and protects the crops; The Warrior God, who brings thunder and hurricanes and shows justice and the truth; and The Supreme Deity, who is represented by the sun and is creator of all things including all the other gods.
The show was both entertaining and educational. The audience got just as enthusiastic as the performers as they drummed, sang, and danced. Everything the students did for the show, from the drum rolls to the dance steps to the African language for the folk songs, was something from the African traditional religion.
The students learned it all, many of them starting from scratch, during their work with Opara.
“Most of them came here without any rhythm,” she said later. “But they are really good students – they picked up quickly and did whatever I told them to. They’re really smart kids.”
Even if you couldn’t understand the words being sung, you could feel the spirit and the emotions of what each character represented through the students’ movement across the stage and the rhythm of the drum rolls.
After all five characters had been presented, the students gathered together for a Celebratory Dance to end the show. The lead percussion line for the dance, including cues to change steps, was played by Opara herself, who had remained on stage with her students and participated in the concert all along.
At the end of the show, Opara’s students took their bows and brought her to the front of the stage to recognize her work. Then, everyone made their way to Dr. Opara’s office for a pizza party.
“This was a lot of work – we’ve been working on this the whole semester,” commented sophomore student Meke Abu. “It was challenging adapting to everyone’s skill levels. But it was good. I got to perform a song from my home language, so that was cool.”
“I’m so proud of all of them,” said Dr. Opara. “This was all about my students. I love them – they gave me strength and kept me going.”
Opara will teach “African Drumming and Dance” again next semester, as well as every semester that she is at Skidmore College.
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