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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Grant Elementary Drummers and Dancers celebrate 50 years bringing different cultures to Spokane: ‘It was something different’

Former members of the Grant Elementary Drummers and Dancers join current members in an annual and traditional dance at the group’s 50th celebration performance Friday.  (Alexandria Osborne/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Alexandria Osborne The Spokesman-Review

When Rahel Alemayehu moved from Africa to the United States, she did not see much from her culture.

But Rahel, a Grant Elementary School fourth -grader, had friends who told her about the Grant Elementary Drummers and Dancers, who perform traditional dances and songs from all of Africa.

Rahel joined the group when she was in third grade so she could celebrate and share her culture.

The group celebrated its 50th anniversary Friday with dances from several countries and a welcome dance. The group is now expanding the cultures incorporated in the dances, assistant director Joelene Garland said.

In their welcoming dance, the students wearing traditional dress with green, blue, orange and white geometric designs approached the audience while moving arms their up and down and swaying.

Their final dance, Vanatigo, was one the group has been performing for the 50 years it has existed; former members of the Grant Elementary Drummers and Dancers also participated in the dance.

“This is really celebrating all the time, the effort, the celebration of literally 50 years of a program that is unique in our district,” Garland said.

More than 70 languages are spoken in the Spokane School District, and 20 are spoken at Grant Elementary alone. Garland said African languages are kept in the songs performed by the drummers and dancers.

Former members had the chance to speak about their time in the group. Members spoke about where they are now and how the Grant Elementary Drummers and Dancers helped get them there.

Some members are graduating high school this year and are about to go to college. Some are in college and others are working full-time jobs.

Katherine Kravatsov, a Grant Elementary School fourth-grader, joined the group last year because she saw her friends dance in the group and wanted to be involved.

Katherine said she has fun performing and enjoys spending time with her friends.

Director Kevin Cope said the group that performed Friday has made a lot of progress in its dances and drumming throughout the year and was able to honor Margo Dreis, Grant Elementary Dancers and Drummers founder.

Dreis said the inspiration for creating the group 50 years ago came to her when she went to a performance at the opera house in Seattle, and when one of the stages opened up, she heard drummers performing various rhythms. After all of the stages opened up and the curtains were raised, she was mesmerized by the multiple groups of drummers performing.

In 1974, she took a group of six drummers to follow through with her vision. Dreis said the group did not have sophisticated instruments at the time and used bongos and garbage cans to create music.

Soon after, some girls would find the practice room and listen, so Dreis invited them to dance to the music they were playing. The group then expanded from six to 15 people.

Dreis said when they were asked to perform at a public event, there was a huge positive reaction from people in the audience because the city of Spokane had not seen performances like that.

“It was something different. It wasn’t identified with Spokane because Spokane at the time was predominantly Caucasian,” she said. “The rhythms that we had were very spontaneous. I would start something, and kids would respond, and each person had something different.”

That experience is important to Dreis because the performers she started with were hard workers and had different rhythms and talents they could bring to the performances, she said.

Dreis said Cope, who has been the director for 24 years, has done an amazing job in his role.

“He has given this community a lot more than I could have ever done at the time,” she said. “I appreciate Mr. Cope and all that he has already done for this community.”