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Why dance each other’s dances? Because we are each other. Come with me on my journey into some unforgettable children’s and teen books about dance, and feel the beat of our cultural histories.
I’m a children’s book writer who writes about our newest neighbors in the United States – families who have resettled here to find safety from violence for their children. Because of my work with refugee communities, an opportunity came my way to document the stories of newcomers who have brought with them a traditional art form.
That’s how I came to interview a young Bhutanese father in Manchester, New Hampshire who taught kids to dance in the refugee camp when they lived in Nepal. His name is Tej Nepal. He is a Nepali-speaking Bhutanese whose family was exiled from Bhutan. Tej teaches both classical dance from Nepal and western dances he had learned in the camps.
Tej taught me that dance is an art that crosses cultures and blends dance forms. His favorite dance is hip hop, and his king of dance is Michael Jackson. Tej’s dance arises from his years as a student of many dance forms. His young son will grow up adding more layers of dance that he learns in Manchester in addition to what he learns from his dad.
Here are some books to offer kids and teens about music and the joy of dance. They show how connected our world is and how we touch each other.
My Mama Had a Dancing Heart is written by Libba Moore Gray. The writer, who grew up to be a professional dancer, writes words of tribute to her mother. She shows us a mother who celebrated the world and gave that joy in movement to her child.
“Bless the world
it feels like
kind of day.”
But before I discovered the words, I picked up the book of its illustrator, Raúl Colón, whose work I admire for the deep emotion he captures in his earthy tones. He brought his Puerto Rican heritage and artistic sensibility to Gray’s story of the love for dance she gained from her mother. By the time Gray reprises with her opening lines, I had fallen in love with this book: “My mama had a dancing heart and she shared that heart with me.”
Padma Venkatraman’s A Time to Dance is a young adult novel in verse. Venkatraman is an Indian-American and explains in an author’s note that as a child she studied Carnatic music. This was the kind of music to which Veda, her young protagonist, dances her classical dance. Venkatraman portrays another family bond that is vital in helping Veda, who tragically loses a leg in an auto accident, to return to dance. Veda’s grandmother offers a model of courage and devotion. Veda also has a young dance teacher, Govinda, who tests her in new ways when she fights to dance.
“Are you dancing or fighting a war?”
Govinda gives me one of his rare smiles.
If he’s trying to be funny, he’s failing.
“I’m used to winning over my body.
Now I’m always losing to it.”
My tone wipes the grin off Govinda’s face.
“Dance isn’t about winning or losing,” he says,
“It’s about enjoying how your body moves.”
This is an exquisite book that gives readers of all cultures a window into the world of a young Indian girl as we see her confusion and understanding of spirituality through her art of dance. This confusion and exploration around spiritual beliefs is a journey of teens world wide.
In When the Beat was Born, Laban Carrick Hill and illustrator Theodore Taylor III tell the story of DJ Kool Herc. He came as a young boy named Clive from Kingston, Jamaica to the Bronx. When he got older he recreated the big dance parties he grew up seeing in his hometown of Kingston. As the DJ of the dance parties in the Bronx, he offered breaks in the music because people loved to dance the breaks. This is where modern street dancing and hip hop began.
Are you interested in reading more amazing books on dance? Try starting with these: