By Lauren Bennett
Special to the Gazette
Growing up, Shaumba-Yandje Dibinga always felt like there was something missing from arts programs for children.
As the child of refugees from the Congo, Dibinga grew up in Cambridge while her parents studied at Harvard University. She was bullied as a child for being the teacher’s pet, and looked for things to do where she could express her creativity. She fell in love with the arts, but felt that typical programs did not provide a space that kids could call home and where the instructors really get to know the students.
“I wanted to start a program where young people can learn about themselves through African culture and not have to pay an arm and a leg for it,” Dibinga said.
So in 1994, Dibinga took a chance, and with her family’s help, she went to the First Church in Roxbury and told them her idea for OrigiNation, a cultural arts center for youth. They loved it, and for the first week or so she only had five students enrolled. “I cried a lot,” Dibinga said. “My siblings and parents were right beside me.” But by the end of the summer, she had 30 kids in the summer program.
Today, OrigiNation, which has a studio in Forest Hills, offers performing arts programs, creative movement classes, theater, and a professional dance division, with only three full time staff to nearly 300 youth per year on-site and 4,5000 off-site. The students are taught more than just dancing and performance: they also learn about self-respect, health, and self-esteem through OrigiNation’s programs. Students have traveled to places like Africa, Senegal, Ghana, and Trinidad through the Youth Empowerment Tour.
The performing arts programs are tuition based, and offer genres like tap, jazz, ballet, and African dance to both boys and girls. Tae Kwon Do is also offered. These students perform twice a year at concerts in December and May.
The Ready Set Dance program is offered to boys and girls ages 7-13. They dance all day long and have a dance history class where they learn about prominent choreographers and dancers, as well as public speaking.
The professional dance division includes four professional youth dance companies that students have to audition for. The four companies are: Aleye, for boys ages 9-13, IMANI Jr., for girls ages 7-13, Girlz of IMANI, for girls ages 14-16, and NIA Dance Troupe for girls and boys ages 16-18. Students are required to do an interview and a callback. “You have to be passionate, but not the perfect dancer,” Dibinga said. She said OrigiNation is looking for kids who are passionate, who don’t mind community service, and who are open to constructive criticism. These groups perform all year inside and outside of the United States.
The two theater productions include Our Story, which is a celebration of African American history that is performed in February, and Tafuta, the story of a young child’s search for the true meaning of Kwanzaa. Dibinga says that while these shows require auditions, she takes everyone who makes the effort to audition. “If you took a chance, I’ll take a chance,” she said.
OrigiNation also has a community outreach and education program, in which they provide lecture demonstrations and performances to schools and groups.
“I never expected us to be almost 25 years old,” Dibinga said, but she said that watching the passion of her students and the parental involvement over the years has been so rewarding. She said that students who have graduated from the NIA Dance Group “always come back to visit and they’re always giving back.” They also come and talk to the current dancers about how OrigiNation has helped them, Dibinga said.
“Our young people are waiting for their turn to do that,” said Dibinga. “The energy of our students is amazing.”
She said she can see the excitement in the kids’ eyes when they get a dance step right or they were able to memorize poetry and recite it. “You would have thought they hit the megabucks,” Dibinga said.
On Oct. 20, OrigiNation will be hosting a benefit called Twist and Shout, which features the dance troupes performing choreography by Dibinga, her sister Muadi, and alumni Britney Wilkerson. Dibinga said that younger students will perform African and contemporary spoken work through stories. The younger dance troupes will also be performing a piece about the children who were taken from their families at the border. “There’s a story in every piece,” she said.
“They’re really putting in a great deal of work,” Dibinga said. “It’s not just a bunch of kids getting together to show their dance moves.” At the benefit, OrigiNation will give awards to people inside or outside of the community who are doing “exceptional things” regarding youth arts programming.
“The arts are extremely, extremely important, and they should be in every single school,” Dibinga said. “I believe that every human being needs to have art in their lives in some way, shape, or form.”
The performance is at 8:00 p.m. on Oct. 20 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets can be purchased online at bostontheatrescene.com/twistandshout, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the Calderwood Pavilion or the Huntington Avenue Theatre.
For more information about OrigiNation, visit originationinc.org.