At a recent rehearsal for "The Sound of Joy," the upcoming Christmas program by the Afro-centric children's troupe Watoto dé Afrika Performing Ensemble, group founder and director Donald O'Conner stopped his kids in the middle of a dance set to the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Gloria Estefan's "Mi Tierra."
"I want you to think about the story the song is telling as you dance," O'Conner told his dozen young charges, looking for an emotional response to one particular lyric in the song, a bittersweet tribute to Estefan's homeland of Cuba. "When you lower your head on that line, imagine you have family still living in Cuba under the Castro regime."
You can see the kids — in this piece all teenage girls — think it over, and then they try it again, giving the section in question a potent glance of solemnity before erupting again in joyous convulsions. Under the patient guiding hand of O'Conner, a dance has become more than entertainment, it has become a way for its young performers to think about themselves and their world in new and exciting ways.
Those are the kinds of lessons O'Conner has been teaching area African-American youth for 22 years. A former songwriter and musician who worked with artists like Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, and Earth, Wind & Fire, the Memphis native founded Watoto in 1987, initially as a program to help curb truancy. But over the years O'Conner has found the performing arts, specifically a culturally relevant form that resonates with his kids, could help address a number of children's issues, including behavioral problems, obesity and academics.
"With these kids, they don't know enough about heritage," O'Conner says. "They're learning method is not to sit down and read a book. It's a hands-on method, which is an oral method. So I brought back an oral method of teaching. Everything they do has a historical component to it."
O'Conner estimates some 3,000 children have passed through the ranks of Watoto. Currently he works with 172 kids, ranging in age from 3 years old to high school seniors.
"It's better than ballet and tap because you actually learn things about the world instead of just learning the moves," says Julia Boggan, 13, who has been with Watoto for a little over a year. "We learn leadership and history as well as how to dance and perform and just how to present yourself on stage."
On Friday, Boggan and the rest of the best of Watoto dé Afrika, known as the Watoto dé Africa Performing Ensemble, will put what they've learned on display at the Center for Southern Folklore as part of a special Christmas program, "The Sound of Joy." The program is the first production in a new partnership between the two cultural organizations.
"We've known each other for years, and finally I realized we needed to do stuff together," says the center's executive director, Judy Peiser, who first featured Watoto at this year's Southern Music & Heritage Festival. "To talk about culture you don't just talk about it, you have to present it in ways that people actually experience it."
Featuring a selection of pieces from the Watoto repertoire — with music including Negro Spirituals, Afro-Cuban numbers, and Cab Calloway — O'Conner says "The Sound of Joy" is not holiday specific but should be a jubilant celebration, nonetheless.
"It's a show about how music is used to celebrate our lives and our pasts," he says. "That's a message that takes on particular resonance this time of year."
Watoto, in particular, has a lot to celebrate. The group recently moved into a new Downtown facility, the Watoto Memphis Youth Development Center at 55 S. Main, which O'Conner hopes will help them reach new kids as well as add to the overall vibrancy of Downtown.
O'Conner is also continuing to develop "Welcome to Funzville," a proposed television show featuring the Funzzies, Watoto's troupe for children in grades 3-5, which will also make an appearance at Friday's concert. Working in cooperation with children's singer-songwriter Dan Zanes, whose music provides much of the soundtrack, O'Conner has been shooting a pilot for the show, which he hopes to have complete in the spring in time for a Funzzies tour of children's museums.
"The Sound of Joy: An Afro-Centric Celebration of the Holidays"
Featuring the Watoto Dancers and the Funzzies. 7 tonight at the Center for Southern Folklore, 119 S. Main St. Admission: $8 in advance, $10 day of show. Advance tickets available at the center. For more information, call 525-3655 or visit www.southernfolklore.com.