Saturday, August 22, 2015

Kids vie for social dancing championships

Lyons Recreation Center was lit up like a music hall with cars parked helter-skelter along Louisiana Avenue’s neutral ground. No, the free event was not a local audition for “So You Think You Can Dance,” but a competition featuring elementary and middle-school students performing traditional salsa, waltz, tango, merengue and swing dance. The Second Annual MindSteppers Dance Championship showcased public and private school children who have diligently been practicing social dance techniques as an extracurricular activity.

“I did not expect that all the kids could be so excited,” said Claire Couvreur, a teacher-instructor at Lycée Francais.

The competition is the culmination of the MindSteppers Teacher-Training Program at six schools - Joshua Butler Elementary School in Westwego, Gretna No. 2 Academy for Advanced Studies, Immaculate Conception School in Marrero, International School of Louisiana in the Lower Garden District, Lycée Francais de la Nouvelle Orleans in Uptown and Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers. Nathalie Gomes Adams, 

MindSteppers’ co-director, says partner dancing yields many benefits, including improving children’s behavior, building self-confidence and teaching social and life skills such as good communication, etiquette, and tolerance.

Owner of Dance Quarter and a champion swing dancer, Adams was also an instructor with Dancing Classroom, which was featured in the documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about New York City public school children learning to social dance. After moving to New Orleans, Adams created a similar program in 29 Jefferson Parish schools.

Friday night, she supervised the contest among 165 students. Competitors, dressed in fancy costumes, sat expectantly waiting their turns in the spotlight. Judges were already in place. The stage was set with golden trophies to award top dancers while parents and friends assembled in bleacher seats ready to be dazzled.

“They’ve been practicing a month strong,” said Mabel Ray, mother of La’Jae Todd, a fifth-grader at Harriet Tubman. “It’s all she’s been talking about lately.”

First-graders from several schools - girls in red tutus and boys in red suspenders - started swinging to “Frogman” Henry’s anthem, “Ain’t Got No Home.” Swoons to the tune of “Fernando’s Hideaway” elicited audience gasps and shimmies brought a burst of applause.

A first-grade trio from Hope Stone New Orleans rocked out to the Jackson 5’s “ABC” with pantomimed assistance from the sidelines. Every first grader got a prize.

By second and third grade, finalists demonstrated real panache, causing salsa judges to circulate for closer looks.

“I’m loving that they’re doing this with the kids - teaching them other cultures with dancing,” said Leontine Benoit, grandmother to Sanai Benoit who waltzed for Gretna No. 2.

To learn the dances, nine teacher coaches participated in monthly workshops at Dance Quarter, not only to get the steps, but how to be both leader and follower. Maria “Pepa” Lopez had already been a swing dance student herself at Dance Quarter.

“The hardest part is to recruit the boys - they don’t want to touch,” said Lopez, a Spanish teacher at Gretna No. 2. “It takes a month to get them to dance together.”

Her student, Ashley Sutherland, won a prize for salsa. “I love how I could express myself while dancing,” Ashley said.

Krista Rae Szaflarski, who heads Harriet Tubman’s after-school enrichment programs, used the school motto of “courage and grit” to encourage students’ commitment to dancing. Five Tubman couples placed in the competition. 

“The kids were better dancers than myself by the end,” Szaflarski admitted.

“I expected them to like it, but didn’t expect them to fall in love with salsa and merengue!”

Monday, August 17, 2015

Volunteers help Lower 9 family move home

By Mary Rickard
New Orleans Advocate

A cluster of homes near the Industrial Canal, including that of Errol and Esther Joseph, is an oasis among scattered plots of willowy grass. A crew of volunteers wearing purple T-shirts stream in and out the couple’s house, laying down floor tiles, sanding and painting walls, informally supervised by Errol Joseph.

“I really like working on that house because it will make him so happy to live there,” said Kevin Panman, a recent graduate of The Hague University of Applied Sciences on a three-month tourist visa. Since 2008, visitors from 30 countries have signed up with, a local nonprofit utilizing volunteer labor to revitalize the historic neighborhood.

The Josephs named their home rebuilding effort “Project Grace & Mercy.” Ten years after 17-foot flood waters inundated their neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, the couple will finally be back home by Aug. 29.

“It is coming together by God’s grace,” said the 64-year-old licensed contractor.

Errol Joseph “went in circles” for five years, trying to negotiate with Allstate Insurance, The Road Home Program, and Federal Emergency Management Agency before meeting Laura Paul, executive director of He had been unable to get a loan for reconstruction because authorities had already made plans to abandon the Lower Ninth Ward, and his mortgage company demanded to be paid in full right away.

“The land had essentially no value,” he said. In the meantime, the Josephs were forced to rent at more than twice the amount of their mortgage.

But in 2013, volunteers began working on the Josephs’ new home.
Esther Joseph

With an operating budget of less than $150,000 year, the nonprofit has fully rebuilt 75 houses and renovated 200 more. Paul estimates has contributed an estimated $8 million in volunteer labor without which most families could never have afforded to rebuild. 

The nonprofit welcomes and houses workers of all skill levels from across the country and around the world for a few days or a few months. Many volunteers were not yet teenagers when Hurricane Katrina struck the coast.

“At first, it was just me getting my home together. Now, it’s a ministry for me,” Errol Joseph said. “I get with these kids, they make me happy.”

Panman, 25, was shocked to see so many homes abandoned. When a storm caused massive flooding in the Netherlands in 1953, the Dutch government quickly stepped up to repair the damage.“It opens your eyes that this could happen,” he said.

Jeongmoon Lee, a college student from South Korea was also surprised by the lack of progress. His country moves quickly after a tsunami devastates its coast.

“It’s been 10 years now and I don’t really understand how the restoration is this little,” Lee said.

Despite hardships, the Josephs were determined to return to the neighborhood where his family lived for generations.

“I used to come and sit on the porch and just reminisce about my dad, my neighbors,” he said. Miss Effie would always be cooking and baking goodies to share. Miss Geniva had all the local gossip, and “Miss Almina made the best Heavenly Hash in the world.” The place holds special meaning for him.

To fund more home rebuilding projects, Alex Goldberg, a James Madison University junior and summer volunteer, launched a #50States Campaign online campaign to raise $1,000 per state.

“You don’t really know until you’ve lived here and seen it for yourself. It strikes an emotional nerve,” Goldberg said. The experience helped him decide to pursue a nonprofit career.

“This solidified what I want to do with my life,” he said.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rickie Lee credits New Orleans for her renewal

By Alex Rawls
New Orleans Advocate

When Bruce Springsteen brought singer Rickie Lee Jones onstage during his Jazz Fest appearance in 2014, it was the answer to a “whatever happened to” question.
In 1979, Jones’ self-titled debut album produced two hits, “Chuck E.’s in Love” and “Coolsville.” She was on the cover of Rolling Stone. She won a Grammy for best new artist and was enough of a celebrity to have a signature style item — her beret.
She pursued her love of jazz-inflected pop and soul through the ’80s and into the ’90s, but her audience dwindled along the way.
Her music stayed good and her voice became an even more distinctive, better controlled instrument, but Jones was out of step with the moment.
It was such a musically dynamic time that she had a hard time being heard
“To have been the foremost female pop singer and have no one know you is humbling,” Jones said.
Her generation still remembers her impact, but another has grown up without an awareness of her.
“The gift of something like that is that you have to harness an inner strength and an inner confidence,” she said.
Rickie Lee Jones is back with a new album, “The Other Side of Desire,” which was released Tuesday.
She has been a New Orleans resident since October 2013, and she credits the move for helping her reconnect to the joy of making music.
Before the move, Jones lived in Los Angeles, but it had become a dead end. She’d become discontented and hyperconscious of her work, second-guessing her musical choices. Even her friends became hard to see.
“I was so lonely there,” she said. “The thing that happened for me here was that wherever I went — and this must have something to do with what I was seeking and maybe changed myself — people looked me in the eye and said, ‘Good morning.’ They’re not doing that in L.A.”
Dr. John first introduced Jones to New Orleans in 1989 when the two recorded a version of “Makin’ Whoopie” together.
He sent her out to meet James Booker and the Neville Brothers, among others. That visit made enough of an impression that she was startled by the number of tourists she saw when she moved here.
“When I go to the Quarter, which is still really enchanting to me, every block has tourists,” she said. “I don’t feel the indigenous population like I did back then. I’m sure they’re still there, but I don’t feel them.”
Creatively, Jones had been in a bad place, but things started to turn around here.
She struck up a friendship with the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ Louis Michot, and that helped her think of songwriting not as a business or a sellable product but as simple creativity.
She came to think of writing songs as part of how people connect and communicate, and the process became easier.
Their friendship inspired her to write “Waltz de Mon Pere,” her first song for “The Other Side of Desire.”
She said her writing process has always been a slow one in which ideas come to her, get written down, and over time some lines get built on while others are removed and replaced. Because it’s laborious, she has traditionally written only when she needed to for an upcoming album, but that changed in New Orleans.
“I’m still writing,” she said. “Almost every day, I’m still hearing music. I’m trying to tell myself that it’s safe to leave the levers open and keep writing and listening.”
Despite its title, “Waltz de Mon Pere” and most of the songs on the album sound like they could only have come from Jones.
Since her debut album, Jones has populated her songs with the people life overlooks, people who look for and offer gestures of human warmth — frequently boozy ones — because that’s all they have to give.
The core band on the album is made up of longtime New Orleanians — Jon Cleary, James Singleton, Shane Theriot and Doug Belote — but they only exert mild gravitational pull on “The Other Side of Desire.”
Jones’ fans will very clearly recognize it as a Rickie Lee Jones album.
For the first time, Jones involved fans in the recording process. She funded the sessions with a Pledge Music campaign and kept contributors abreast of the album’s progress through a series of blog posts.
Some big donors got a chance to visit the studio, which took some adjustment for Jones.
“If it would have happened at some other time (in my career) it would have been intolerable,” Jones said. She thought of this album as a “family project,” and that helped her get her mind around the visitors.
“My family had just gotten bigger. As it turned out, every one of them was a really neat person. They were all OK.”
When Jones joined Springsteen onstage at Jazz Fest, it was as much of a surprise for her as it was for the crowd.
Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren and his wife are fans of Jones, and when Jones saw that Springsteen was playing Jazz Fest, she reached out to Lofgren’s wife to say hello. They invited her to visit them backstage, and when Springsteen saw her, he got a bunch of lyrics and went over some songs for her to sing.
“When I was up there singing, he came over and said, ‘Don’t leave the stage,’ ” she remembered. As the set continued, the band went into songs she didn’t know, but she stood with his wife and backing vocalist Patti Scialfa and did what she could. “I don’t think my mic was on,” Jones said, laughing.
“He said, ‘We love you, and we’re so glad you’re back,’ and I wasn’t back yet. It was, ‘All of us are waiting for you,’ and to walk up and say that to me was — oh, my heart.”

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Maafa ceremony recalls enslaved ancestors

By Mary Rickard
New Orleans Advocate

The millions of Africans and their descendents who suffered and perished in slavery will be remembered on the morning of Saturday, July 4, with singing, dancing, drumming and prayer during the 15th annual Maafa Commemoration. According to a statement from Ashe Cultural Arts Center, sponsors of the event, Maafa is a Kiswahili word meaning “horrific tragedy.”
The two-hour ceremony begins at 7 a.m. at Congo Square and will be followed by a procession winding though the historic Treme neighborhood, the French Quarter and ending at the Mississippi River, where slave ships landed. White carnations will be tossed into the river at Woldenberg Park where the procession will conclude. Participants are asked to wear white attire for the ceremonies.
Carol Bebelle, Ashe Cultural Arts Center executive director, said, “The local Maafa Commemoration offers an opportunity for the whole community to pause and reflect on this great transgression against humanity. It allows us to personally, and as a community, agree to distance ourselves institutionally, in word and deed, from that transgression, its legacy and the evolved practice of racism in our civic, social, spiritual and personal lives.”
The healing ceremony in Congo Square will include inter-faith words of healing, a tribute to the indigenous people of Louisiana and the release of white doves of peace. Senegal’s Morikeba Kouyate will play traditional music on the kora, a West African harp.
Ancestors will be honored by name, including victims of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the levee breaches, bombings in Boston, the Mother’s Day shooting in New Orleans and other incidents of senseless violence.
According to Luther Gray, coordinator of Ashe’s community and cultural programs, Congo Square is important because it was the only place in the Antebellum South where enslaved African-Americans and people of color could practice their rituals and communicate in their own language.
“We’re 200 years removed, but the spiritual energy is still there,” Gray said. “It’s not just something in the past.”
According to Gray, American Indians in the area were the ones who made Congo Square sacred ground, with their rituals during the corn harvests, before the arrival of the French.
At the ceremony, Queen Chief Warhorse, chief of the Tchufuncta Nation, Chahta Tribe, will speak, while the Treme Fi-Yi-Yi Mardi Gras Indians perform, he said.
At 9 a.m., drummers, musicians, Mardi Gras Indians and African dancers will lead the gathering of participants in a procession, first stopping at the Tomb of the Unknown Slave beside St. Augustine Catholic Church. Guides will be stationed at several significant locations, including the former site of the convent of Sisters of the Holy Family, a Catholic order of free women of color founded by Henriette DeLille; former slave auction sites at Cafe Maspero and Royal Orleans; and the Louisiana Supreme Courthouse where Homer Adolph Plessy appealed a racial segregation law in the case, Plessy v. Fergusson.
Historically, slaves, American Indians and free people of color congregated at Congo Square on Sundays to sell goods and reaffirm their heritage. New Orleans was the only place in the South where drums had not been forbidden. To this day, members of the Congo Square Preservation Society meet weekly to continue the legacy of drumming.
The Code Noir created laws for slavery in French colonies, including rules for punishment but also gave slaves the right to marry, keep families together and have Sundays free from work. These laws affecting enslaved persons were unique to Louisiana.
“New Orleans is a Sunday city, based on the fact that it was a free day,” Gray said.
Celebrations commemorating African ancestors who endured the Middle Passage take place annually in many cities, including San Francisco; Houston; Montgomery, Alabama; Washington, D.C.; Detroit; New York; and Rio de Janeiro.
Shuttles will be available to return people to Congo Square after the ceremony concludes.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Teacher learned about New Orleans 'specialness'

By Mark Guarino


The roots of Melanie Deffendall’s family go deep in New Orleans. Her ancestors arrived in the city in 1721 and generations since have stayed put. Before Katrina hit and the levees broke, she was enjoying a life she established in Gentilly Woods: gardening, enjoying her home, and teaching at nearby Delgado Community College. On May 5, 2006, her son Benjamin interviewed her about her past, the impact of the storm and what lay ahead. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Benjamin Deffendall: Mom, what was it like to live in New Orleans during the ’50s and ’60s?
Melanie Deffendall: I was telling my coworkers about the wagons that used to come down the street when I was 4 or 5. We had the waffle wagon, the rag wagon, the vegetable and fruit wagon. So it was a simpler time than it is now. We didn’t have a TV until I was about 5, which was OK. We lived in a working-class neighborhood. Segregation was still in place. We always lived in neighborhoods that were mixed, black and white. Different streets, but in close proximity to each other. I don’t know, I just don’t want to live anywhere else. I will probably stay here until we all have to leave. When you visit other places, you realize how different New Orleans is. Even at my age, I didn’t realize how different it was until we had to evacuate.
BD: What is it about New Orleans that makes you not want to leave?
MD: I think it’s because we have such a different attitude about things. If you think about all the hurricanes that have devastated Florida and Texas and Mississippi, nobody’s had blue tarp fashion shows, nobody’s had comedy on gutted refrigerators that you don’t dare open. People look at things differently here. They’re more relaxed, more laid back. I think it’s just a way of life and an attitude that attracts people to come here but they don’t take it home. And we just try to enjoy life. Not do things so rigidly.
BD: Tell me about your family.
MD: My family had a lot of characters. My grandmother and her sister were named Thelma and Louise. They ran liquor over to the Gulf Coast during Prohibition for money. My mother had one leg, she had a brother with one arm, and another brother who was deaf.
My dad made false teeth. And when I was a kid he would bring home all kinds of people that didn’t have teeth. There was a guy on Canal Street with no legs and he was on a little platform on wheels and he sold pencils during the day. But he didn’t have teeth so my dad brought him home. We lived in a house with stairs. And he had these two blocks of wood with handles and he would pull himself up the stairs like that. Well my mother had one leg but we didn’t know anybody with no legs. So we were just fascinated.
We had two old ladies that used to come that my dad made teeth for. And they would come every week to get them adjusted. They would bring stuff from the bakery. So we were always glad to see them. One day my dad said to me, “Go downstairs.” He had a laboratory down in the basement of the house. And he said, “Have a seat.” He didn’t do a thing to the teeth, all he did was clean them. He sat down and smoked a cigarette, took them back upstairs. They would say, “Oh, much better.” It was just an outing for them. Then we had another friend of my dad’s who was a plumber. He could do pushups with all four of us sitting on his back. We were really impressed because he was only about 5 feet tall but he was really strong.
[Jazz clarinetist] Pete Fountain was a friend of your grandfather’s. They grew up in the same neighborhood. When he finished playing a gig, he would go by grannie’s house. They were all younger. He would bring hot French bread and she’d make the coffee and they would sit up and just drink coffee and eat French bread. Two or three o’clock in the morning. They didn’t mind that.
BD: How has your life been different than you imagined?
MD: Since last August it has quite a bit different. We had a complete lifestyle change, all of us. You leave your house with three days worth of clothes and expect maybe two weeks without electricity. Then the storm passes and you wake up to find out how it’s going and find your entire city is under water. I don’t think the total catastrophic nature of the event sunk in. So we are still trying to figure out, “now what?”
I thought I had a pretty comfortable life. I was pretty set, liked my house, liked my yard, the garden was pretty good. Now I have studs in the roof. Furniture from other people, donations. I really don’t have a place to keep them because I don’t know what to do with my house until they tell us what we can do. Then FEMA says if you rebuild and you don’t meet code, we can fine you. We have nothing, and you’re going to fine us for fixing our house so we have a place to live?
Most of us feel like gypsies. We have things here, there and everywhere. It’s a hard time. And people are not getting better mentally. They are getting worse.
BD: What was the most important lesson you learned?
MD: Stuff is not important at all. It’s nice to have things, but it’s the people and your relationships with people. They don’t have anything either. They’re as wiped out as we are. But they share. Whatever you have, you just share with everybody else. I think people have now a new love for New Orleans. All things New Orleans, we have to go. If you have French Quarter Fest, people show up, Jazz Fest, people go. Small concerts, people go. People are going out and trying to be with other people. Because of course it’s not nice to be at your house now.
BD: What do you want to say to people about all of this?
MD: You can’t give up. You have to come back and you have to make it right. You can’t keep out whole sections of the population because you think they’re not worthy or poor or uneducated, or have some kind of past you don’t like. Everybody should be able to come back. I don’t think housing projects are a good thing, but they could have repaired some of those housing projects much easier than they dragged all those trailers in here.
It’s the people who make New Orleans. It’s not the place so much. You can’t transplant yourself somewhere else; it just doesn’t work. We have to join together. We need to get some clear answers. We all feel we have no leadership whatsoever. So everyone’s out there doing their own thing and we’re not moving forward as fast as we should. We feel great abandonment by the government. We don’t have enough mental health professionals here. People are really wigging out. We need help.
BD: Anything else you want to say?
MD: Let’s talk about All Saint’s Day. That bothered me a lot this year. I always went to the cemetery and put flowers. And I couldn’t. And it was my job to carry that forward. It was a big day, you got dressed up, you went to the cemetery and you went out to eat. It’s really pretty because the flowers are all over the whole place. Couldn’t get in there this year. I guess when I die you’ll have to do it. Because no one else does.
Deffendall returned to work at Delgado, where she teaches sociology and created the Irma Thomas Center for Women in Search of Excellence that empowers female students to stay in school and on a path to success.
Even though she says she is “dreading” the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, she finds she often talks about her experience with students. The stories, she believes, need to be told.
“I don’t think it helps me, I think it helps them,” she said. “For me, it’s like picking at a scab. Once you do it, things start bubbling up really fast. I think that’s true for a lot of us.”
It took three years for Deffendall, 63, to return to her home, which took more than four feet of water. Those early years of living in a FEMA trailer took perseverance but she says she is encouraged that her neighborhood is now just starting to look better. Abandoned lots are being purchased and empty homes are getting occupied.
But to her, New Orleans still has a long way to go. “I really don’t think we’re there yet,” she says. “I had a plan that my house would be paid for when I was retired. But now I will die probably owing money on this house,” she said. “Katrina had long-term effects that people don’t think about.”