Photograph by Mattias De Los Rios

From the minute you walk into the Afro-Haitian dance studio, you feel welcomed. At lunch, the studio becomes a exhibition of the students’ talents. With music booming and laughter filling the air, the joy that comes with being involved in this class is palpable.

Brought to Berkeley High as part of the African American Studies Department in the early 1970s, the class has had all different types of students, learning about a culture they would not otherwise be exposed to.

“This class is all about giving the students a sense of pride and culture they wouldn’t otherwise get from an academic class. Regardless of race or ethnicity, this class gives the students a safe place to be themselves,” said Mama Shorty, a co-teacher of the class. Afro-Haitian Dance offers insight into cultures that don’t get very much attention in typical academic settings.

“If you are going to represent a culture, let alone teach it, you have to show it from all sides, not just sciences and technology, but art too,” said Mama Washington, the current Afro-Haitian Dance teacher. She explained, “You need to give a sense of context, and the beliefs behind the culture.”

There is a strong sense of family and community among the students. Leandro Gonzales, an Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS) senior who is also a proctor of the class, said, “This class has meant everything to me. I have spent so much of my time in this dance studio … it has become a family to me. I’m going to miss this place when I graduate.” Many of the students do come back. Once they graduate, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of their Afro-Haitian dance experience, and those who do not return take the experiences and lessons with them.

“It becomes a social setting. While you are dancing and learning, you make friends with people from all walks of life. That is really what it is about, building a tight knit community filled with welcoming arms,” Mama Shorty said. The class is an obvious example of different people collaborating on a mutually loved project. She explained, “Working here, you have to be really open to other ideas and other peoples. You end up learning, to be a teacher, that you can’t treat the students as a group, you have to treat them as individuals.”

Every year, before winter break, Mama Washington puts on a show to exhibit what has been taught to the class and what they have been working on for the last four months. “This year’s theme is redemption. It will be different from other years in the way that we are bringing in more influences from other cultures. For example, there will be two separate salsa dances, and, while the salsa dances are going on, the Berkeley High School Jazz Band will be playing some of their music pieces as accompaniment to the dancers,” Washington said.

The Afro-Haitian Dance Class has always been one of the classes at Berkeley High where art intersects with community and education. 

Berkeley International High School (BIHS) sophomore Orli Hellerstein put it simply: “Although only being in this class for four months, I have already learned so much about myself, and it has changed my worldview forever. Being a part of this class has taught me my place in the world and showed me how to own that place and thrive within it. That is what this class has meant to me.”