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Drummers and Dancers build cross-cultural understanding

Grant Drummers and Dancers gather in Riverfront Park after Junior Lilac Parade.  Photo courtesy of Grant School


By Marijke Fakasiieiki

Grant Elementary School Drummers and Dancers celebrate their 50th anniversary of commitment to cross-cultural understanding and creativity from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Friday, June 7 at the school, 1300 E. Ninth Ave.

"It's an important part of the East Central neighborhood, which has been and still is one of the most diverse in Spokane, with more and more recent students coming from around the world as refugees and immigrants," said Kevin Cope, who has been Grant's music teacher and leader of the Drummers and Dancers program since 1999.

In a video released in May, the founder, Margot Dries, who started the program in 1974, said she wanted children in Grant Elementary School to gain cultural experience, have a sense of belonging and set lofty goals.

For 25 years, Kevin, who was recruited to teach at Grant Elementary School from Glover Middle School because of his drumming experience, has trained several generations of students to work hard, set goals, practice weekly and perform authentic African dances comfortably in front of audiences.

At first Drummers and Dancers was for fourth to sixth grade students. Now third graders can join.

The program has grown over the years, using more African instruments and importing African fabric for dresses for girls and dashikis for boys.

Performances take the group to the Fall Folk Festival, the Martin Luther King Jr. March, the Junior Lilac Parade and four to five school cultural events a year. They will perform for the 50th anniversary of Expo '74.

The group, which includes 48 this year, performs a diverse set of dances from cultures throughout Africa. They are accompanied by Kevin and students drumming—not a recording.

At performances, former students join the last dance, "Vanati Go."

The kids meet after school weekly to learn and practice dances.

"I make rehearsals positive. I have students stretch and work hard, and I tell them, 'Well done!' It's a thrill to see the kids responding to applause and see their faces beam when high schoolers from Lewis & Clark cheer for them," Kevin said.

While the group once learned from the leaders only, now they also watch videos of African dancers online. They are able to mimic them and use more authentic gestures and movements.

"We've added more energetic dances. Videos help with African dance warmups and help the kids understand what they should look and feel like, so they are now less stiff. They shake their bodies, lift their chests and move as African dancers," said Kevin.

With Internet, they have also been able to share. Seven years ago, with the help of the Spokane Symphony, they did a live conference call with Kamehameha School in Honolulu, and shared dances with each other.

They've also made the dances and program more interactive, inviting audience participation, teaching words of songs, children's games and stories about African culture, and explaining what the dances mean and what culture they come from.

Kevin believes education is important because there is much ignorance in the community and America in general about African culture. Many learn misinformation from movies.

"It is easier for us to be kind to people if we understand where they are coming from," said Kevin.

"For Africans, family is important, and children are important. In many African cultures, taking care of children is the responsibility not just of parents, but also the whole community," he said.

"Drummers and Dancers has taught many kids responsibility. Many, whose home lives were tough, come back and say that Drummers and Dancers provided stability, family and friends. Kids would hang out as a group, helping each other stay out of trouble," he said.

In his second or third year at Grant, Kevin had a flat tire on his way to school and missed the 7:30 a.m. practice. He had no way to contact the principal. The custodian had let the kids in. After Kevin arrived at 9:30 a.m., he learned that the sixth graders ran the rehearsal, and the principal had watched them.

As adults, former students have let leaders know the goals instilled have been crucial in their success.

One former student said it inspired her to study at Gonzaga University.

Because it is an important program for Grant Elementary School, Kevin always has to teach new principals about Drummers and Dancers.

He especially has to do that when there are budget cuts, and school administrators are tempted to cancel all afterschool activities.

Several years ago, when it seemed that was going to happen, TEAM Grant, the Parent Teacher group, funded the program so it would keep going. They have bought drums, provided support for participating in parades and volunteer as chaperones.

"It makes a difference to keep the program," Kevin said.

The pandemic also had an impact. The group was not able to practice together for almost two years, so when they came back together, only two students had performed in public.

"We basically started over from zero by using videos of prior years," said Kevin.

Joelene Garland, assistant director, and Kevin, taught the kids, but the kids also taught each other, showing how the dance movements should look.

"I believe in giving everyone a chance, no matter what their background is or where they come from," Kevin said, "the kids just need someone to show them we are brothers and sisters.

"With events in recent years, we need to celebrate our differences," he said.

Kevin now also teaches music in some other schools, but he knows that at Grant Elementary he's making a difference and having an impact on the kids' lives, giving them something to work for.

This reporter, her two siblings and her three children were among others who have participated for two generations of Drummers and Dancers from the 1990s to 2019.

For information, call 354-2800, email or see

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June 2024