Zanker Elementary School in Milpitas kicked off the first day of Black History Month by hosting an opening ceremony/assembly. Reverend Jethroe Moore, who’s President of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, talked to students about Black History, and the ceremony featured an African gumboot dancing performance by Kele Nitoto and Marcus Marshall from Oakland Hand Drums.
Gumboot dancing originated in South Africa during the Apartheid, when men were forced to work in dark mines for 6 months at a time, away from their families, in unsafe conditions. Since they weren’t allowed to speak to one another, they had to develop their own way of communicating. They thus started to slap and stomp their boots. In time, the practice evolved into a dance, which has since been brought to the United States. Some say gumboot dancing played a tremendous role in cultivating what’s known as “stepping”, a more contemporary form of dance involving similar stomping movements.
Nitoto’s father learned the art of gumboot dancing from his own father, who himself learned it from a gentleman who brought it from South Africa in the seventies. When Nitoto was younger, he and his father would perform the dance and teach audiences about what occurred during the Apartheid.
“It’s such an honor to be this school’s first Black History Month performance,” said Nitoto, who’s been playing drums and gumboot dancing all his life.
His friend Marshall, meanwhile, has been dancing for 4 years, and was taught by Nitoto. “It was probably the funnest experience I’ve ever had, learning the dance…” said Nitoto.
Zanker students watched with delight as the pair performed a spirited and lively dance, speckled with bell sounds and built around chanting and stomping with their large boots.
Afterward, when Moore got up to speak, he opened the children’s minds by talking about how the ice cream scooper, along with new ways to use peanuts (in things like shampoos and glue), were discovered by African-Americans, and speaking to larger themes of unity and human connectedness…
“Respect your neighbors. Love your neighbors,” said Reverend Moore. “Because they all want to go to school and be safe with one another…”
He also spoke of Ruby Bridges, who in 1960, at the age of 6, became the first African-American to desegregate an all-white elementary school: “She made it able for us to come together in school today for everyone in school to learn.”
Zanker’s Black History ceremony was organized by a group of dedicated parents from Zanker’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA).
At one point, Nitoto sounded a resonant note about the human spirit of perseverance: “Let me tell you something: It is your job whenever you’re in bad times, to try and find the joy and happiness.” Bringing it back to gumboot dancing, he said, “This dance came to be because people were finding joy in bad times.”
Milpitas Mayor Rich Tran, who had also been scheduled to speak at the assembly, could not attend, due to scheduled morning meetings that had gone on longer than anticipated.
Editing note: The section about ice cream/peanuts was rewritten for accuracy.