EAST ST. LOUIS – “Sunshine” is synonymous with African drumming and dancing in East St. Louis.
The nickname belongs to Sylvester Lee, who studied under legendary dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham before starting his own ensemble 40 years ago. He has taught thousands of children about their African roots and helped instill ethnic pride in a community that has faced its share of challenges.
“I’ve taught five generations,” said Lee, who grew up in East St. Louis and now lives in Belleville. “I can tell you so many success stories. We’ve had teachers, superintendents, doctors and lawyers come out of this organization. We’ve had five dance companies come out of it.”
Lee is 65 now, and some might expect him to be slowing down, but that’s not the case. He holds rehearsals two nights a week, leads workshops throughout the Midwest and travels with his Community Performance Ensemble, jembe drums in tow. Last year, they performed in Israel.
“We particularly get our music, dancing and drumming from West Africa, where the tradition is still rich and in good standing,” Lee said. “In other words, the rituals go on.”
Today, there are 28 drummers and dancers in his “road company,” in addition to students who are learning.
It’s a family affair for some. Rayshunda Gibson, 35, of Madison is a dance instructor. Her sons, Jajuan Gibson, 18, and Javarian Walker, 14, are drummers, and her daughter, Janilah Lewis, 11, is a dancer.
“I started when I was 12,” Rayshunda Gibson said. “I grew up like a lot of children in a high-poverty area with a lack of love. I started taking African dancing, and basically, it became my first love. I was trying to fill a void. So after I had kids, I just wanted them to have an understanding of what I love and an understanding of their African culture.”
Lee has taken five extended trips to study dance and other culture in Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. In each case, he brought his knowledge and skills back to the people of East St. Louis.
In the mid-2000s, Lee began turning the city’s abandoned Morrison School into Sunshine Cultural Arts Center. It’s a place where children and adults can gather for sewing; photography; arts and crafts; exercise classes; yoga; basketball; movies; counseling and mentoring; and music, dance and theater programs.
All of the staff members are volunteers.
“I lived in a lot of different places, but I came back to East St. Louis 20 years ago, and I want to give back to my community,” said Paulette Shipp, 65, a retired banker and substitute teacher who sews costumes and teaches crafts. “It’s important. If I don’t, who will? Who’s going to help these kids?”
Volunteers have been working to raise funds for the center, recently organizing a Wakanda Village Coronation Ball that included an African-inspired dinner.
The ball was a fundraiser for building renovations. The 1928 school has an outdated kitchen and bathrooms, a leaky ceiling in the hall, other maintenance problems and only a couple of window air-conditioning units.
“In order for us to come into the 21st century, we need to bring the building up to the same standards as our hearts, our minds and our bodies,” said volunteer Cheryl Foxworth, 57, of Centreville, who danced with the ensemble as a girl and now is a contract worker for United Way.
Lee’s cultural journey began in the early 1970s, when he and a high school friend, Arthur Moore, won two local talent shows by performing James Brown soul music.
Moore also was a drummer for Dunham, then a faculty member at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and founder of its East St. Louis Performing Arts Training Center. She taught the Dunham Technique, integrating African and Caribbean styles with elements of ballet and modern dance.
At one point, Moore invited Lee to stop by a rehearsal.
“I saw a bunch of curvacious women taking classes, and as a young guy, that got my attention,” Lee said. “I wasn’t interested in drumming at the time. I just wanted to hang out.”
But Lee’s motives changed, and before long, he was playing congos with Dunham’s dance company. He became keenly interested in traditional West African techniques and, with her blessing, decided to strike out on his own.
Lee started teaching boys how to play drums in the backyard of Leslie Bates Davis Neighborhood House. When girls asked to join the group, he recruited Betty Owens, one of Dunham’s students, to teach them African dance moves.
But the movement was about more than performing, Lee said. “It was to bring cultural awareness to the community and to promote unity through love, respect, pride and dedication.”
Lee attended Illinois State University on a wrestling scholarship but quit after a year and a half and returned to East St. Louis. He worked eight years as a job developer for the Urban League and 20 years a community organizer at Leslie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.
Lee chartered the Community Performance Ensemble in 1978. He saw it as a way to help his hometown overcome the economic and social devastation that was getting kids in trouble and keeping them from reaching their full potential. That goal never changed.
“I had an opportunity to teach at San Diego State University with a nice salary,” Lee said. “But I chose to stay and work to change the perspective of the young people in the great city of East St. Louis.”
One of Lee’s longtime instructors is Valerie Adams, 74, of Centreville, who has a similar philosophy.
She danced with Dunham’s company from 1969 to 1975, taught a body-conditioning class at State Community College, started her own ensemble and founded the Community Theater and Artist Guild of Madison and St. Clair Counties, which eventually merged with Lee’s organization.
“What we bring to the table ... why take it somewhere else?” said Adams, who now works as a substance-abuse counselor at the Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center. “We want to help continue the greatness of East St. Louis.”
In 2016, Ford Motor Co. gave Lee its Ford Freedom Unsung Award, which honors ordinary people doing extraordinary work in the African American community. Last year, he was named Cultural Ambassador of East St. Louis by the mayor and city council.
Lee has no plans to retire, he said. “As Katherine Dunham said, ‘Culture is a way of life. It doesn’t stop until you’re dead.’”