Hidden History: Austin-East dance program celebrates West African heritage

Black History Month
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Preserving African dance and culture is a vital part of one Knoxville high school. The Austin-East Magnet High School has an impressive dance program that travels to perform across the county. The shining light of the program is its West African Drum and Dance Company.

“The drum and the dance is a marriage. It’s a husband and a wife. One doesn’t do well without the other,” says dance instructor Malaika Guthrie.

Guthrie has been choreographing and inspiring your dancers at Austin-East for more than two decades. Dance, rhythm and storytelling merge with the sounds of drums overpowering the halls of the school as they students move in the studio.

Student Karaya Cook says the program has been had a huge impact on her life.

“Honestly it changed my life. It changed how I live every day. It’s made me create a new passion and love for dance that I never even knew,” said Cook.

Guthrie teaches more than just dance, she is also instilling a love of culture and history in these teens.

“When you know yourself, when you know who you are and you can identify who you are and the gifts and talents that God gives you, it just makes you an overall better person. Not just in the field of dance but also it matriculates into your academics,” says Guthrie.

The program at Austin-East also trains dancers in modern, hip-hop, ballet and tap dance. The dancers say performing West African dance for smaller children is a favorite. 

“They are so excited. They clap, they scream. At the end it’s tradition that we grab a kid and the drummers will play a little beat and we will all dance together in the gym or wherever we perform at in the elementary school and they are just excited and they love it,” says Trinity Mattress.  

Guthrie hopes this passion and excitement for dance will take these students to the next level in their lives.

“In African culture, you want to pass on those things that are good, those things that are going to help and benefit people in the future and in their futures.”

In 1997, Austin-East was designated as Knox County’s only Performing Arts Magnet High School, offering continuous quality dance, musical, audio production, advanced art and theater programs for all residents of Knox County.

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