“If you want to study the dance, study the people, and if you want to study the people, study the dance.” —
Wisdom taught by Baba Dr. Charles “Chuck” Davis (Founder and Artistic Director of African American Dance Ensemble) to Baba Stafford C. Berry Jr. (Assistant Professor of Dance and Black Studies at Denison University) and handed down to Samantha Hyde.
Samantha Hyde loves movement and she loves kids, and she loves teaching kids to love movement. So what better place for Samantha than her current position as Director of Education and Community Engagement at Colorado Ballet? Happiest when working directly with children in schools, youth centers, and summer camps through Colorado Ballet’s school programs, Samantha loves to share her training and background in Umfundalai and West African dance styles. Inspired by her mentor Stafford C. Berry Jr. while pursuing a triple major in Dance, History, and Black Studies at Denison University, Samantha has become part of the West African Diaspora dance community in the United States. She embraces an African-inspired way of thinking about dance and culture and, in her work, tries to share this way of thinking about dance with her young students. But there is a twist to Samantha’s story.
West African dance in America is primarily performed and taught by West African and African-American dancers. However, Samantha Hyde is a young Caucasian woman. When she first began studying West African dance, Samantha says, it was sometimes awkward to be “the white girl” in class. She tried not to look in the mirror too often and eventually discovered that West African Diasporan movement felt good and comfortable for her body. She particularly took to a West African-inspired movement style called Umfundalai (pronounced “um-foon-duh-luh”). Pioneered more than 40 years ago by Mama Kariamu Welsh, a Guggenheim award-winning dance scholar and choreographer based at Temple University, Umfundalai mixes traditional West African dance elements with African-American derived rhythms.
West African dance was not the type of dance Samantha studied while growing up in Akron, Ohio. Samantha’s mother put her in pre-ballet and pre-tap classes when she was three years old, and Samantha grew up with conventional studio-based training in ballet, tap, jazz, and modern. As a talented 6th grader, she auditioned for the local arts middle school and was accepted as a dance major. She then went to her neighborhood visual and performing arts high school and continued with her dance major, studying ballet and modern, doing student choreography, and performing.
Samantha originally matriculated at Denison University to study history but, within two weeks of arriving on campus, she attended an ice cream social in the Dance Department on a whim and immediately decided to shift her major. It turned out to be a good decision. In her sophomore year, Denison dissolved its ballet track and, like many other university dance departments, created a world dance program. Berry Jr. joined the Dance faculty as an Assistant Professor and brought with him, among many achievements and extensive experience in the arts, a strong background in West African-rooted dance and theatre. He became Samantha’s professor, mentor, resource, and friend, and she still consults with him regularly, calling him “Baba” in the West African tradition. She says about Berry Jr., “He unlocked the door to a new world for me: West African Diaspora movement. Not only were the dances and rhythms surprisingly comfortable in my body (and voice) but the philosophies completely changed several of my understandings of the world around us. Stafford’s teaching techniques heavily impacted how I walk into a classroom each day.”
As Samantha spent more time studying these movement styles, she also began to shift the way she was thinking about dance itself. Traditionally, many West African dances have particular functions, such as a wedding dance or fertility dance, but these dances have become integrated into the general culture over time. Currently, several of these dances are performed out of the context of their traditional functions, at parties, just for fun. Samantha realized that she too had been restricting her own dancing to certain contexts, like school or the studio. “It was like a light switch going on,” she says, and she began to understand that dance can and should happen anywhere and anytime. “It happens wherever it happens,” she says, “and now I’m more prone to get somebody moving with me if I’m moving.”
Samantha’s time at Denison provided many opportunities for professional development. As one of only three dance majors, Samantha held jobs as a Teaching Assistant, Tutor, Research Assistant, and Fellow. For her senior thesis, she developed a workshop to teach West African Dance at youth centers in Columbus and Newark, Ohio. Combining her loves of dance and history, she did a social dance workshop. After teaching two older American social dances, the Lindy Hop and Charleston, to her students, she then asked them to teach her their social dances. Together, she and the students searched for the common elements in these seemingly disparate dance styles. “I told them, I am going to teach you, but you also have to teach me,” she said. “I still love to teach this workshop to students.”
After graduating from Denison, Samantha signed on with a Denver-based AmeriCorps program and moved to Denver to work with PlatteForum. This job allowed her to visit area schools and transition into the local arts education scene. She worked briefly for Denver Public Library, and eventually her path led her to teaching creative movement as an outreach instructor with Colorado Ballet’s Education and Community Engagement Department. Then, being in the right place at the right time, she was hired as the Education Program Manager in 2014 when the position became vacant. In March 2016, the Director of Education and Community Engagement position became available and Samantha was promoted to fill that role (Samantha Hyde Bio).
Being Director of a large education and outreach program at a major ballet company keeps her days full, with about 75% of her time devoted to administrative responsibilities. However, she still takes dance classes and performs when the opportunity arises. She also maintains teaching at least one class per week so that she can continue bringing movement and dance to children in local neighborhoods. She continues to teach West African dance as well as the social dance workshop she developed for students while in college (Colorado Ballet School Workshops).
Samantha gets to see the positive impact of the outreach program firsthand when she is teaching. In a workshop she taught to first graders this past summer, there was a little boy in one of her classes who is on the Autism spectrum. He refused to join the Bantaba (dance circle) and said he wanted to play music instead, so Samantha gave him a gourd and asked him to sit and be the group’s musician. He started shaking the gourd while the other children were dancing, but suddenly he stood up and grabbed Samantha’s hand and hopped right into the Bantaba. Later, the boy’s mother told Samantha that normally her son is highly stressed by group activities and does not participate. Samantha’s voice fills with emotion as she recounts the experience of watching this boy join a group of classmates just for the pure joy of dancing and moving.
“I really love being with kids,” Samantha says, “and what makes it rewarding is serving kids in the highest-need neighborhoods in Denver. Coming from out of state, I didn’t know that need was here. I had thought of Denver as a middle-income, affluent city, but there are many families here who really don’t have the resources to access dance.” And that little boy who was inspired to put aside his anxiety and join in the Bantaba? When Samantha asked him if he liked his music teacher at school, the boy’s eyes got very big, and he said to her, “YOU are my music teacher!”
Dance outreach programs do make a difference in the lives of individual children. Says Samantha, “We are filling a void in arts education in the public schools. We may be the only thing happening in music and movement in their lives right now.”
Hilary Simons Morland: Hilary is a freelance writer and grant-writer, and writes often about dance. She is a lifelong aficionado of the performing arts, and studied dance through college. Hilary is a Denver Ballet Guild Board Member and Adjunct Faculty at the Colorado Women’s College, University of Denver. In the past, she has done fieldwork on lemurs and monkeys, coordinated conservation programs in Africa, and been a stay-at-home mom to three children, one of whom is a dancer. Hilary is a California native, and has a BA from Reed College and a PhD from Yale.