The rhythms of Afro-Cuban dance, the history of the Brazilian slave trade and the finer points of big sisterhood – these are just some of the lessons Elisabeth Newton, 13, a freshman at Berkeley High School, is learning through her World Arts and Movement Class at Common Ground, a school-within-a-school at BHS, which focuses on social justice and multi-culturalism.
Common Ground is offering the course for the first time this fall, under the tutelage of dance instructor Wendy Ellen Cochran. Cochran, who prefers to go by wendyEllen, has traveled throughout California for the past 20 years, bouncing from school to school and teaching this class in one form or another.
Everywhere she goes, wendyEllen, working with dancers and musicians from all over the world, teaches high school students Brazilian, Caribbean and African songs and dances, and takes them on tour to local elementary schools.
After performances, she forms partnerships with the elementary schools, pairs up older kids, like Newton, with third-grade “buddies,” and begins conducting classes with the high school and elementary school students together. There, she uses song and dance to teach students about history, world cultures and the power of mentoring.
“I can see a kid transform when he or she is given the task of teaching a little kid,” wendyEllen said. “I’ve seen the worst kids turn into angels when they have little ones at their feet.”
Newton can’t say enough about her work with Hali Laws, a third grader from Washington School.
“I made a little third-grade friend,” she crows. “I get to be an older sister for someone who’s not my sister.”
WendyEllen, working with artists-in-residence Rogerio Teber of Brazil, Jose Francisco Barroso of Cuba and Hugh Humphrey of Trinidad, teaches her students backgrounds of every song and dance they learn.
“Every dance has a history, a language, a geography and a culture,” wendyEllen said. “There’s a tremendous amount of anthropological study involved.”
Her students say the anthropological aspect of the class is one of its most interesting facets.
“We’re learning a lot of history about the places the dances come from,” said Newton, discussing the Afro-Brazilian roots of capoeira, a martial arts dance form.
“I think I’m learning a lot of new things,” added Morion Shelby, 14, a freshman at BHS.
But wendyEllen and Humphrey say that, while they emphasize the unique qualities of every culture studied in class, they also take time to discuss the commonalties uniting young people around the world.
“(The students) get to realize that maybe we talk a different language, but we all go through the same things as teenagers,” Humphrey said, “the same peer pressure, the same trouble with parents.”
WendyEllen says that this focus on common ground brings together students in her classroom who might not normally interact. “Berkeley High can be very segregated,” she said. “You don’t see that (intermingling) much here.”
WendyEllen will bring a group of high school students to Malcolm X Arts & Academic Magnet School on Dec. 14, at 9 a.m. to perform, perhaps enticing another elementary school into participation in her program.
Later in the month, she plans to bring her high school students and their Washington School buddies back to Washington for a group performance.
But wendyEllen, and her artists-in-residence - who receive small salaries through grants from the California Arts Council and several local foundations - are looking beyond Berkeley. Together, they are putting together grant proposals for student trips to Cuba, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago in the latter part of the school year.
In the meantime, they are happy to watch their students learn about world cultures and pick up valuable life lessons.
“I get to learn how to teach little kids,” said Michael Cochran, a junior at BHS. “I think it will help when I get older and have my own little kids.”