Courtesy of Kuumba Kids Dance

The proclamation read in honor of Black History Month at the Oak Park village board’s Feb. 6 meeting was made all the more powerful by the performance of traditional African dance by the village’s youth. The Kuumba Kids danced in council chambers, as drummers provided accompaniment, making for a truly moving experience.  

Those who missed out need not despair, however. Kuumba Kids will be marking the end of Black History Month with a celebratory recital at Longfellow Elementary on Feb. 24 that promises to be even more special. 

“What we saw Monday at the village was just a snippet of what the kids are going to bring on Feb. 24,” said Donna Callendar, Kuumba Kids LLC founder and dance teacher.

The performance is Kuumba Kids’ annual Harambee celebration; harambee means “all pull together” in Swahili, and the event represents the community coming together. The children involved in Kuumba Kids have been practicing for months in preparation for the event, where they will showcase traditional African and Caribbean dances to the rhythm of professional drummers. 

This is the first in-person Harambee celebration since COVID-19 hit. The pandemic, in its full force, didn’t hit Illinois until March 2020, so Kuumba Kids were able to perform for Black History Month. In 2021, they had a virtual celebration, which they reran in 2022. This year, the celebration will be bigger and better than ever, according to Kuumba Kids Executive Director Melanie McQueen.

“We have surprise guests that we’re really excited about and we’re going to have one of the best choreographed pieces that anyone has seen,” she said.

In between dancing, this year’s Harambee celebration will have spoken word poetry and musical performances, making for an evening that brings awareness to the cultural impact of the African diaspora. And admission is entirely free. 

“There is no cost to the community to come enjoy an evening of dancing, of poetry, of music and art,” said Callendar. “It’s absolutely free to everybody.”

The performance starts at 7 p.m., but an hour before that, 17 vendors will be at Longfellow selling African and Afro-centric clothing, accessories and goods. Vendors are coming from all across the Chicago area.

Kuumba Kids started as an afterschool program for elementary school kids, but as the original group of students were moving on to upper-level education, they wanted to continue dancing and returned to Longfellow for practices. Just as the children grow, so has the organization. It now has around 50 student dancers. 

“The fact that these students want to come back and still dance and still learn and still perform, it touches me because I feel I’m doing my job,” said Callendar, a professional dancer. “I am utilizing my talents in the most authentic way.”

Callendar and McQueen are incredibly proud of their Kuumba Kids students and what they have accomplished. Through dance and a love-based approach, Kuumba Kids are taught to be confident, expressive and compassionate individuals.

Courtesy of Kuumba Kids Dance

For Black students, Kuumba Kids is an opportunity to connect with their heritage. For the other kids, the program broadens their cultural scope, teaching them to respectfully engage with people of different backgrounds in a meaningful and educational way. Through Kuumba Kids, the children create beautiful relationships with movement, history and each other. 

Kuumba means “to create” in Swahili and a respect for creation flows through everyone involved in the organization. Before Kuumba Kids became a certified limited liability corporation, Callendar was teaching the kids after school while working a full-time office job. Wanting nothing but the best for her students, she purchased a sewing machine and taught herself to sew, putting together all the costumes. 

After work, Callendar would stay up as late as 3 a.m. sewing, then squeeze in a couple hours of sleep and head to work. Now she is able to commit fully to Kuumba Kids, immersing herself in work that she loves – teaching children.

“I will not go back to an office job in life,” she said. “This is it for me. It has been the happiest times of my life.”

While McQueen comes from a family full of artists, the Kuumba Kids executive director didn’t find her creative calling until Callendar asked if she could make decorations for the first ever Kuumba Kids Harambee program in 2016. At the time, she was just a parent volunteer.

“I was like, ‘Really? You really want me to do something?’” McQueen recalled.

Despite her initial nervousness, McQueen knocked it out of the park, making a Serengeti-themed backdrop with thatched grass laid out at the front of the stage. From then on, she has been tasked with stage design for each performance. 

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but that’s how we started working together and then of course became business partners,” said McQueen.

With each Kuumba Kid Harambee celebration, Callendar and McQueen try to outdo what they created the year before, ensuring that the costumes and scenery are always fresh and beautiful. And while pleasing for the audience, the efforts they put in make a difference to the children. 

“Their whole demeanor changes,” said McQueen. “They get really excited because they never know what it’s going to look like.”

That excitement is carried into their performance, as is the energy of the audience. The children, especially the younger ones, are thrilled to see their family and teachers in the crowd and that verve is channeled directly into their movements. 

“It always brings tears to my eyes,” McQueen said.

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