Community garden SEEDS, found at 706 Gilbert Street, has been known for its community gardening and youth education since 1994. But the students involved in the SEEDS after-school program will be learning more than nature and gardening in the months to come.
Youth Educator Thaddeus Bennett is bringing Chinese mixed martial arts choreography to his students.
“One… and a two… and a three… and a four…” chants Bennett as his students wave wooden swords together in one motion.
Bennett, who has been working with SEEDS for 10 years, teaches his students everything from gardening, to unique animals across North Carolina, to mixed martial arts.
Bennett’s introduction to dance at SEEDS is new to his students, but his background in dance goes back to 1981.
“Chuck Davis is who really got me interested in dance,” Bennett said.
Davis and Bennett became friends in the late 70’s. Davis’ focus was dance and Bennett’s was mixed martial arts. “I thought dance was for the girls, but Chuck opened my eyes,” said Bennett.
“Chuck was this big ol’ guy, but could move so fast and delicately. I wanted that in my acrobats and martial arts,” Bennett said.
Bennett started learning from Davis and in 1984, they went on to start the African American Dance Ensemble, 120 Morris Street, Durham.
Bennett continued his dance career by traveling the nation with the African Rep Company. Later he had the opportunity to spend a year teaching dance to students from all over the world at the American Dance Festival, 715 Broad Street, Durham. “I got to train kids from Japan, Germany, Italy — everywhere. That experience showed me how to teach,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s teaching experience has evolved to help kids learn about gardening, preservation of land, wildlife, martial arts and dance – all in the same setting. Now he wants to bring his dance experience to the youth active in the SEEDS after-school program.
“That feeling of choreography in front of an audience is what I want to develop,” Bennett said. He believes choreography teaches more than flexibility and agility. “Relaxation is the key to everything: discipline, focus and strength,” he explained. “That’s what I try to teach them.”
The class is intense and Bennett said many kids end up dropping out. For 45 minutes without a break, the kids listen to instructions on how to draw swords, hold postures and maintain focus. If they lose focus or start laughing, Bennett calls them out.
“Most guys drop out cause it’s too hard or they don’t want to do the work,” Bennett said. “Right now they look like little people with little swords. I want them to look like strong people with big swords.”
Third-grader Sender Martinez has stuck with the mixed martial arts class for over one year.
“I want to be strong like the fighters in the movies,” Sender said.
Bennett said Sender has learned a lot in the time he has been here. “When Sender started coming here, he never listened to me. He would always get in trouble and didn’t want to learn anything,” said Bennett. “Now he is our best fighter and is becoming our best dancer.”
Bennett is preparing his class for an end-of-semester performance in late May called “The Swords and Birds.”
To prepare for the show, the students will be training their martial arts abilities and applying them in a uniform dance. Bennett will also be teaching them the art of using a weapon as an instrument of dance in the performance.
However, “The Swords and Birds” will be about more than dance.
“This semester we will be learning about some of the thousands of species of birds that exist,” Bennett said. Bennett and his students have started to set up interactive display tables about birds.
One table is dedicated to the differences in bird feet. Another table is a game of matching a collection of birds with the type of food they eat.
Bennett likes to test his students on the facts these tables offer. He sits the kids down and quizzes them to see what they have been learning throughout the week. When a student gets a question right, Bennett rewards them with chocolate.
By May, the kids will learn about hundreds of birds and be able to perform a uniform dance together while learning other life lessons along the way.
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