Tributes continue to pour in upon the news of the death of Melvin Deal, the founder of the District’s dance troupe, African Heritage Drummers and Dancers.
For more than 50 years, Deal has been considered an integral part of the Washington, D.C., African dance community. A native Washingtonian, he started dancing in 1959 and graduated from Howard University in 1965.
His contributions to his beloved city include having trained countless at-risk youth in dance, holding residencies at all of the major D.C. area universities, helping to found the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and working with the DanceAfrica festival.
In reflecting on his life’s work of performing, choreographing, managing and promoting African dance, he said in a 2017 interview that he when he started dancing, most assumed that you had to do ballet in order to be successful. However, he felt an affinity to African dance and chose to follow his intuition and desire. At the time, decolonization efforts remained in full force on the African continent and he took it upon himself to fight the vast number of stereotypes about Africa.
Many of his former students counted as at-risk youths who often credit him with having changed the direction of their lives. Through his African Heritage dancers, he secured legitimacy for African culture in the community and the larger city.
He once shared how he educated a Washington Post writer about Africa dance and how the resulting articles led to a significant increase in attendance at African dance events.
As for his commitment to working with youth, he often said he wanted to improve their sense of self so that they would be able to say, “I feel like I am someone now.”
Deal recently served as the grand marshal for the MLK Holiday DC parade in 2021, again held in Southeast. But he has held numerous hats including community priest leading celebrations, spiritual services and special moments across the region to help connect people to Mother Africa. Whether it was a Kwanzaa service or a church anniversary, one could count on seeing Deal and his rhythmic procession of drummers.
“The drum is the centerpiece that connects the spiritual world and physical world that allows the voice of God to speak to the people,” Deal said earlier this year.
“The icons, the drums, the horns, the rattles, the people and the chief are part … because many people and dancers are telling a story about the importance of moral and ethnic values that help people find their place in society,” he said.
Details have not been released about his funeral at this time.