One glance around the small gymnasium, and it’s obvious these third-graders assembled are fully engaged: heads bobbing to the music, faces smiling a mile wide, necks stretching to glean a better look, hands rhythmically tapping on laps, and bodies dancing in place while seated on the floor. Not to mention the exhilarated chatter-chatter and giggling that soon turns into whoops and cheers as the students are given a taste of what is soon to come.
What has these youngsters so fired up at 9:15 on a Tuesday morning is the lively, interactive body percussion performance ensemble known as Molodi (pronounced Mo-laud-ee). Five of the group’s 10 members made an in-school appearance at MJ Christensen Elementary School in Southwest Las Vegas on Dec. 2 in conjunction with The Smith Center’s Education and Outreach Department’sin-school performance program.
The program comprises a roster of selected local artists dedicated to teaching and performing in schools and community centers throughout Southern Nevada. By sponsoring this and other high-quality arts experiences, The Smith Center hopes not only to provide education about the arts but also to create amazing, lifelong memories for Clark County students, teachers and the community.
“The education and outreach program offered by The Smith Center is stellar,” says Antwan Davis, one of the five performers and the co-founder-vice president of Molodi. “It connects artists like Molodi to an audience we hold dear to our hearts—the youth.”
“It [The Smith Center education programs] facilitates artistic diversity in many schools that would have possibly missed out otherwise. The schools have been fun, and the experience is a powerful affirmation of sharing the arts, inspiring young minds and hearts, and my responsibility I have as an artist to my community.”
The members of this fun, high-energy group use their bodies as instruments, blending collegiate stepping, tap, gumboots, beatbox, poetry and hip-hop dance to create a dynamic, rhythmic experience, And, once it begins, Molodi elicits a natural urge in onlookers to want to jump up and join in—which is exactly what these eagerly awaiting third-graders were prompted to do during the presentation.
Starting with a brief background of what stepping is and how it began, Molodi founder-president Jason Nious explains to the young audience that the art form is composed of intricate rhythms and sounds generated through a combination of footsteps, claps and the spoken word, and that its origins lie in African-American Greek fraternities and sororities.
He goes on to say that body music, of which body percussion—striking two things together to make a sound—is a subcategory, falls under the umbrella of stepping. He demonstrates body percussion with a clapping exercise that has the kids patting their chests, bellies, mouths and heads, snapping their fingers and, of course, giggling all the way through.
And then Nious shifts to a more intense note, and perhaps the very heart of the matter, when he begins discussing the essential elements it takes to be part of a stepping team: rhythm, teamwork, discipline and a high-energy level. He talks about stepping requiring hard work and a “love to be the best,” and teaches the kids a pledge highlighting self-discipline and self-control: “Good, better, best; never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best.” He sums up his lesson with, “Do your very best—that’s what counts.”
“I enjoy using body percussion as a tool to pass on life skills to the kids; it’s like sneaking vegetables into their lasagna,” says Nious about the lessons to be learned during Molodi’s in-school appearances and workshops.
“Yes, they clap under their legs and make cool rhythms, but at the same time, they are learning about teamwork, leadership and focus. It’s great because we can see their brains churning as they figure out the complicated parts for themselves, and we know we’ve inspired them to explore it even more. So, in the end, we’ve done our job.”
Then the real fun ensues. Bringing everyone to their feet—teachers included—the group demonstrates how to assume a stepping at-attention position: feet together, stand up straight, fists touching, mouths quiet, look forward, and their grit on (or what they jokingly referred to as “ugly faces”).
After a few at-attention practice drills, the stepping instruction follows, and by the intent looks on their faces, the kids are enjoying every moment as they diligently try to replicate the moves. The program concludes with friendly competition in which three of the school’s teachers judge whether the right or left half of the student-filled room has best accomplished the stepping routine. The lesson? “Go bigger, go stronger—always strive to improve.”
“The Smith Center gives us a great opportunity that I’m very grateful for,” says Khalid Freeman, another co-founder and vice president of Molodi. “I certainly enjoy the workshops, performances and, most of all, the lasting positive impression the kids leave with.
“I know the feeling very well, because I was that kid and I aspired to be in the arts. The Young Americans Program, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to music outreach in schools around the nation, helped me make my dreams a reality, and I believe that we are doing the same for these kids as well. So thanks for giving me a chance to return the favor.”
Additional education and outreach programs of The Smith Center include student matinee performances, where Clark County students and teachers are invited to attend special daytime performances, such as literature-based theater, dance presentations and puppet shows; professional development workshops designed for teachers K–12 to share their strategies for arts-based learning; the Southern Nevada Wolf Trap Early Learning Through the Arts regional program that offers teaching artists residencies in preschool classrooms; the Nevada High School Musical Theater Awards, a statewide competition in which two winners are selected to participate in a national competition in New York City; Disney Musicals in Schools, where selected CCSD elementary schools produce a Disney KIDS musical guided by trained teaching artists; the Camp Broadway summer camp for kids ages 6–17, which is led by Broadway-experienced professionals; and Ensuring the Arts for Any Given Child, which works to secure access to the arts for all K–8 students.
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