Members of the African Dance and Music program at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville play Africans drums and dance during their annual fine arts Christmas Festival Assembly on Dec. 12.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Members of the African Dance and Music program at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville play Africans drums and dance during their annual fine arts Christmas Festival Assembly on Dec. 12.
At Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, appreciation for the arts isn’t reserved for a few drama enthusiasts and band members – almost one-half of the 885 students are dancers, singers, actors or instrumentalists. Yet, “it doesn’t feel like arts school,” insists visual art teacher Kate Heneghan, “it feels like a school that takes its fine arts seriously.”

The program from their annual Christmas Assembly reflected the variety of artistic outlets the students have. The performance started with a number from their fall musical In the Heights, followed by a lyrical dance routine. The show included tap dancers, a jazz ensemble playing “Joy to the World,” a gospel rendition of “The Night that Christ was Born” from the choir, and a slideshow of students’ visual artwork.

At McNamara, students can take as classes on topics they could normally only find at a dance studio or theater camp due to the school’s strong dedication to the fine arts, said teacher Thomas DiSalvo. “What’s great about the administration is that they really focus on the fine arts, they know its importance’ and they encourage it,” he said. “There some kids who take four fine arts class, (out of their eight classes). They want you to be able to explore everything.”

Though DiSalvo says that all the fine arts classes are very popular, students cheered especially loud for the African dancers at the assembly, who performed in headdresses and robes to the beat of tall drums. “The kids always love watching them perform,” said DiSalvo. “Their production in the spring is sold out within a half an hour of it going on sale.”

The African music program began when social studies teacher Chris Williams visited Ghana and met a young man named Victor Bah who was going to study African Theater and Dance at the University of Ghana. After staying in touch for years, in 2001 Bah came to Bishop McNamara to teach, and now runs a program with 90 students.   

In addition to taking art classes, students can apply to the Fine Arts Diploma Endorsement (FADE) Program, an arts enrichment program where students take several classes in one of four tracks: visual art, dance, theater or music. The nearly 100 FADE students also attend some of the 25-30 performances that McNamara students have per year and participate in guest artist workshops called colloquiums. For students worried or unsure about how to make their arts dreams into a career, the colloquiums give them an opportunity to hear from local arts professionals about their path to success.

McNamara senior and FADE student Rachel Leader said, “They talk about their struggles, and that’s what’s important for all the aspiring artists in the room, no matter what their track is. I will struggle, I get that, but you’re my proof that it will be okay, and that’s kind of cool.”

Junior FADE student Alonzo Farley enjoys the variety of the colloquiums, he said as he was attending one that featured pop singer Mya, a Prince George’s County native. His friend Frank Godfrey noted, “You really get exposed to different things that you wouldn’t have gone out of your way to see.”

Mya, who won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with the song “Lady Marmalade,” released several studio albums and was a finalist on “Dancing with the Stars,” spoke to the FADE program about surviving the music industry and leaning on her faith. “You have to live within or under your means, because to invest in what you love to do costs time and money,” she told the students. She also said that learning how to do different elements of the work, like sound engineering, choreography and even hair and makeup make an artist more self-sufficient and able to succeed. A convert to Christianity in 2007, she said now “my faith is everything. It’s something that I have to work on every day, like spiritual homework.”

FADE began in the 2006-2007 school year when DiSalvo was still a student at McNamara. He said he was especially glad for the colloquiums when people asked him what he was going to do with the theater degree he planned to get in college. “I think these events show these students they can do it, and it gives them more of an answer to say when people ask, ‘What are you going to do with that?’” he said.

After graduating from McNamara, he attended The Catholic University of America and earned a degree in drama. Now along with teaching and directing the FADE program, he also runs a theater company, Parlor Room Theater, with two other McNamara graduates – his brothers. They still perform in the high school’s Fine Arts Theater.  

Even with the focus on fine arts, non-arts students have an important role at McNamara, Rachel Leader said. “This school is pretty much like a family, and so it’s kind of like families within families – the dance family and the theater family, and then we have the fine arts family…” she explained.