Return to Headlines

Roots of Life Performing Arts Ensemble

It was story time at Benner Elementary School — but not the usual reading out loud.


Before a rapt audience, the visiting Roots of Life Performing Arts Ensemble members told tales with flowing dances propelled by vibrant drumming. They swept their legs and waved their arms, chronicling the lives of African Americans who championed freedom. Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Freed slave Henny Helmsley. Writer and composer James Weldon Johnson.


For nine years, as part of the State College Area School District’s Learning Enrichment Program, Roots of Life has delivered such mesmerizing displays of entertainment and enlightenment. Students from elementary to high school come together to embrace West African dance and drumming, broaden horizons and form lasting bonds.


They rehearse on Saturdays, sometimes with guest artists such as Atlanta-based dancer Terrie Ajile Axam and Penn State students, for shows that have included appearances at Penn State’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Banquet. This year’s ensemble comprises 25 students of varied performing experience, melded into a creative force.


“Roots of Life performances are energetic, emotionally evocative and expressive, sometimes challenging — themes of oppression and injustice are addressed directly — and always inspiring,” said Heather Scott, whose sons, Avery and Evan, have danced and drummed, respectively, for years. “The joy these kids channel is infectious! West African proverbs and philosophies come to life through the dancers’ movements and interactions. I love how the drummers and dancers reflect and elevate one another’s energy.”


Elaina Lang, a Park Forest Middle School eighth-grader in her fourth year with Roots of Life, enjoys teaching about history through dance. “We also get community and friendship, so we get to have a little family we see whenever we perform or practice,” she said.


Roots of Life’s success stems from one enduring friendship.


Debra Daggs, a Mount Nittany Middle School Gifted Support/Learning Enrichment teacher, and Kikora Franklin, a Penn State Associate Professor of Theatre/Dance, have led the ensemble together. Their partnership began when Daggs invited Franklin — who teaches West African, Hip Hop and Mojah dance, the last a fusion style — to be a guest artist at Mount Nittany workshops.


Students responded so enthusiastically, Daggs and Franklin expanded to three groups for an after-school program. After two years, one group became a master class for sustained, committed learning — the genesis of today’s ensemble.


Roots of Life offers two levels: beginning workshops for younger students and performance rehearsals for the more advanced. But the groups are linked by strands of African-American literature, poetry and history taught as inspirations for performances such as this year’s “A Dream Conceived in Truth Can Never Die.”


“One of the things Debra and I talk about, which is so important to me as a parent and as a person of color in this community, is that black history is American history, and it’s important for all of us to share in that history,” Franklin said. “I believe that it is important for all students to understand they are a part of a multicultural society and there are many voices that contributed to making America what it is today. Learning about our shared history will allow us to continue to have empathy for one another and understand who we are as American people."


Franklin and Daggs reflect Roots of Life’s diversity. All are welcome to learn, to help their classmates grow, to unite in opening eyes and minds.


“One of the things that has always amazed me about this group is that, regardless of who individuals are when they come in, they become a group, and it’s really very heartwarming,” Daggs said.


Scott said Roots of Life has “woven literature, athleticism, historical awareness and social justice perspectives” into her sons’ lives, allowing their “senses of rhythm, strength, power and grace” to grow.


“And they’re having fun doing it!” she said. “They’ve forged close friendships within the group, and have always looked up to Kikora’s amazing Penn State students. Participating in events like the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Banquet, SCASD school performances and community workshops has promoted their confidence, advocacy, and social connections within our town.”


Jonathan Smith found camaraderie. Coming to State College from an African-American community in Atlanta, he felt out of place — until at age 11 when he witnessed one of Franklin’s first master class performances. Impressed, he joined the class, becoming a charter member of the official ensemble.


Roots of Life, he said, challenged him to be a better scholar through research for dances, and instilled mental discipline. Most importantly, though, it provided community.


“I must admit, I missed the black community when I moved to PA, but Roots of Life gave that to me through a connection to my roots in African and black culture,” said Smith, now a Howard University honors student. “But beyond just a closer connection to the black community, Roots of Life was intended to really show love to everyone. Our group was multicultural, encompassing people of black, European, Asian, Latino and mixed cultures. We used our differences and special talents to create a group that was able to share that cross-cultural connection to the community around us.”


By Chris Rosenblum

Photos by Nabil K. Mark