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Jennifer Stott was surprised to see so many black children who had been adopted by white families when she moved to Provo in 2004.
Over time, the Detroit native's surprise turned to shock.
Not only did the vast majority of these children know next to nothing of their African-American heritage, they also had been subject to appalling acts of prejudice. She heard accounts of schoolmates who refused to play with them or shunned them outright. Girls told of how at shopping malls and stores, bystanders walked up to touch their hair, without asking.
Even comments at the milder end of curiosity "Why is your mother white when you're dark brown? Why is your hair like that?" made them feel like specimens, rather than valued children.
"I even felt it myself after moving here with my husband," Stott said. "Whatever people here saw on television regarding black people was what they also expected me to be. I knew these kids needed a place where they didn't have to struggle to understand 90 percent of what's going on, because that's what it's like to be here."
It was soon after the birth of her daughter, Imani, that Stott decided something must be done to help build and fortify the self-esteem and talents of black children raised in the contrast of Utah Valley's Anglo backdrop. So in early 2006, when her daughter was an infant, Stott found an empty rehearsal space and nine children from two families to learn African dance and drumming under the banner of "elikya," the Swahili term for hope.
There were times, Stott said, that funds and space were so hard to come by that students would learn moves and steps wearing winter coats, or rehearse in park space. Today, her Elikya Dance & Drum Company include 30 kids who are learning African and African-American dance, as well a rigorous touring and competition schedule. The company currently is performing "Africa: Music, Culture, Dance," a concert of 15 dance numbers, ranging from Battu to Motown and Zulu, onstage Jan. 6-14 at Orem's SCERA Center.
The dance company is one part cultural mission, one part support group for white parents who want to support their adopted children. For the dancers, it's mostly a lot of fun.
Sage Service, a Salt Lake City homemaker, learned about the group through Brigham Young University's children's fair. Even before her adopted daughter Maya became old enough to dance, Service was looking for something like Stott's group. She knew of support groups for parents who adopted children across racial lines, and cultural dance groups. She thought a group that combined the two was exactly what her daughter needed.
"She gets a better sense of herself, plus it's every little girl's dream to perform," Service said. "When they get together, it's like an unspoken understanding is at work. They can just be themselves. It's magical, really."
Stott said she founded the company on the belief that everyone can dance, there is no wrong way of dancing, and that the best of African dancing uses the body to tell a story. In the case of Elikya's concert, that story will move from present to past. Starting with dance numbers such as Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" to Motown, then "progressing back" to Mai and Ethiopian dance pieces, makes black Americans' contributions to popular culture all the more clear, Stott said.
"When you come back from intermission, you will literally be in Africa," she said. "Along the way, we'll have poetry pieces and gospel music."
The nonprofit company asks for nominal tuition to help cover rental fees for rehearsal space. Auditions are held every April, but she's yet to turn anyone away. Although boys participate, Stott said that girls by far are the greatest beneficiaries because they face greater peer pressure at an earlier age. Unlike boys, they don't partake of as many sporting events.
"I have two goals," Stott said. "The first, most important, is for every girl to graduate from high school with honors and go on to college. The second is to show our culture to the entire state of Utah."
Africa: Music, Culture, Dance
Elikya Dance & Drum Company presents a concert.
When • Jan. 6-14. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where • SCERA Center, 745 S. State, Orem.
Info • $8-$10; 801-225-ARTS or http://www.scera.org.