Why This Matters: Throughout Charlotte-Mecklenburg, residents are seeing their parks, libraries, recreation centers and community spaces transformed into hubs for cultural activity through ASC’s Culture Blocks program.
By Bernie Petit
When Allie Butler joined an African dance class at Sugaw Creek Recreation Center in Charlotte, it rekindled a passion for the movement she discovered during her childhood in Michigan.
Still, she didn’t know rediscovering that passion in a community center program would lead to her being onstage in front of a roomful of people.
But there she was, at the Midwood International Cultural Center on Central Avenue in Charlotte, performing with a close-knit group of her classmates at a holiday festival.
“It’s so liberating,” she said. “People were so moved after our performance. That sense of community, togetherness, culture – African dance really can bring people together.”
Public performances such as this or ensuing performances at area churches and schools are not the goal or purpose of the class, presented by Charlotte Ballet and supported by ASC’s Culture Blocks program, which partners with Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation to provide residents with cultural experiences close to home.
What they are is a result of the community building that has occurred ever since instructor Javonne Gbenyon-Spearman held her first class at the recreation last July.
That Wednesday night, Freddie Rivera, whose stage name is Ayinde the Drummaker, was playing the djembe, a goblet drum originating from the West African country of Mali, in the middle of the un-air-conditioned gymnasium. Gbenyon-Spearman threw open the doors to let in a breeze.
“The drums were echoing all throughout the parks, the baseball field, the soccer field, the little playground and people just started coming from throughout the neighborhood,” she said. “That’s how it started.”
Since then, the weekly class – which draws anywhere from six to more than 20 participants – has allowed newcomers and regulars to do something for themselves.
“I tell them to take your arms, wrap your arms around you and thank yourself,” Gbenyon-Spearman said. “We do for others on a daily basis. But here you are today. You took this hour for yourself. You got whatever toxins and negativity out of your system and reinforced it with positivity.”
Every movement the participants learn in class has a name or a meaning behind it. Scooping down with an arm becomes more than just a dance step – it’s symbolic of the history of women and girls in Africa gathering water in buckets for their families.
“You’re really learning about the background of the African culture, which makes it more special,” Butler said. “You realize that something as small as dance can mean so much to our culture and that’s why I like being a part of it.”
Gbenyon-Spearman, who is originally from Liberia and graduated from North Carolina A&T University with a degree in dance and performing arts, said the class enables her to share a part of herself with her students.
“They may not necessarily have that passport to escape, to go travel and see the world,” Gbenyon-Spearman said. “I look at it as they get that slight piece of authenticity from me.”