CONGA DRUMS KICK UP A BEAT AS a couple of dozen children in grass skirts and face paint work themselves into a state of exhaustion—and exhilaration—in the auditorium of a Harlem junior high school. It's a typically high-spirited rehearsal of the Batoto Yetu children's dance company, and as the group's founder, Julio Leitão, a 30-year-old African émigré, shouts instructions and praise—"bend your legs...stretch your arms...put a smile on your body"—his young charges happily comply. "Julio screams a lot," says Gabrielle Wilson, 9. "He's louder than 500 whistles."
Leitão is shrill for the thrill of it. Since founding Batoto Yetu ("our children" in Swahili) in 1990, he has taught more than 500 schoolkids many of the African ritual dances he learned from his mother, a member of Zaire's Luba tribe. "I feel the responsibility to pass on the songs and dances she taught me," Leitão says as he watches his current troupe, who range in age from 3 to 17, prepare for a benefit performance at New York City's Lincoln Center. "We're helping children discover who they are."
"Julio is teaching these kids to be proud of their heritage," says singer Roberta Flack, who, along with Brooke Shields, Danny Glover and director Jonathan Demme, serves on Batoto Yetu's 20-member advisory council. "They are learning a sense of creativity and discipline that will serve them well later in life." Drawn from predominately poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Leitão's students find sanctuary in his makeshift dance studio in Harlem's Graham Windham intermediate school. There, volunteer tutors help dancers with their schoolwork. "Harlem isn't much different, from Third World countries where children don't get the best education," says Leitão, who won't allow failing students to perform. "So we have to educate ourselves."
"It's like a family here," says Cathy Mack, three of whose children dance with the troupe. "Julio helped with their confidence and self-esteem." Adds her daughter Shoné, 15: "Julio tells us stories from his past. It makes you want to learn more."
The program also gives Leitão a chance, he says, "to live the childhood that was taken from me." Raised in Angola, he fled to a Zambian refugee camp with his mother, a store owner, and six of his eight siblings during a 1975 civil war in which his father, a government worker, was killed. A year later the surviving family joined other African refugees in Portugal, where they were temporarily housed in an abandoned jail. "We created our own Africa in Portugal," Leitão says. "Whenever we went to sleep, my mother sang. In my dreams I walked through my father's garden and smelled the lemon grass. That's the way you survive when you don't have a home—your dreams, and the music and dance, keep you going."
By age 17, Leitão was an enthusiastic student of western classical dance as well, and after studying ballet at a Lisbon dance conservatory, he moved to New York City in 1985. While performing with ballet companies in Princeton, N.J., and New York's Long Island, he began teaching African dance at Harlem's National Black Theatre. During the time he was giving free lessons to kids in a local playground, Leitão formed his first Batoto Yetu troupe. "I discovered that's where my talent was," he says. "Teaching is learning for me."
Although Batoto Yetu is now funded by federal grants and gifts, money remains short. Leitão is often found in his Manhattan apartment cum office sewing costumes and dreaming of establishing a village for war-refugee children in Angola. "This is just a rehearsal in New York," he says. "Wait until you see our world premiere."
TOBY KAHN in New York City