Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Kwanzaa Time!

A guide to new celebrants!

Yes, it is once again Kwanzaa time!  Time to eat benne cakes, roll out the Mkeka, set up the Kinara, light the Mishuma Saba, pass around the Kikombe Cha Umoja,and reflect on the Nguzo Saba!

Before we begin...

Kwanzaa is not a Christmas substitute for African Americans...Kwanzaa doesn't have anything to do with Christmas at all.

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday.  Kwanzaa is not about religion!

If that is what Kwanzaa is not, then what is it?  Well, it is easy enough to explain.  Kwanzaa is the African American Festival that occurs at the end of the year.  It was originally created by Dr. Mulana Karenga in the late 1960's.
A picture book about the spirit of Kwanzaa!

Why have an African American inspired celebration?

African Americans have been an integral part of the history of America since the beginning.  Despite that, there are no national celebrations that recognize the contributions of African Americans to our country.  There have been and still are African American inventors, soldiers, entrepreneurs, cowboys, farmers, firemen, and America even has a black president.   In the '60's and all through my childhood, as a matter of fact, there was no acknowledgement that African Americans had much impact on the country at all before Martin Luther King was born!  Kwanzaa has two main components that encourage celebrants to consider their place in the world as well as reflect on the contributions of African Americans.  The first is the Nguzo Saba, and the second are reflective readings.

Kwanzaa is a truly American celebration.  it is based on First Fruits celebrations in different parts of Africa, but it is not like any of them.

So, That's as much history as I'm giving!  Now, on to the steps!

First you need a mat of some sort of natural fibers.

MKeka (M-ke'-kah) - this mat is the foundation of your Kwanzaa display and it is the foundation that we use to build our lives.  It represents the African American culture and traditions.

Mishuma Saba (Mish-oo'-ma So'-bah) - The candles.  Three green, three red, and one black.  These are the colors of the African American Flag.  The red is for the blood we all share no matter where our ancestors were born, the green is for the hope of new life and a better world, and the black is for the color of the African American ancestral heritage.

Kinara (kin-are'-ah) - The candle holder.  The proper way to set up the Kinara is to put three red candles on the left, three green candles on the right and the black candle in the middle.  You light the black one first.  On the second day you light the red one.  On the third day you light a green one.  You continue to alternate between red and green for the remainder of the festival.

Muhindi (moo-hin'-dee) - These are ears of corn, there should be one for each child in the home.  The corn should be dried.

Mazao (mu-zow') - These are fruits and vegetables added to the Mkeka that represent crops, the bounty of the earth, good things and plenty.

Kikombe Cha Umoja (ki'-cOm'-bA chah' oo'-mO-jah) - The unity cup.  We drink communally from this cup as well as pour a libation for the ancestors.  Honoring the ancestors, those who came before us is an important aspect of Kwanzaa.

Now that the Mkeka is set up it is time to get on with the celebration!

You can give Zawadi, (zu-wo'-dee), which are small presents, typically handmade, but they can also be things like books, but gifts are not the main thrust of Kwanza.

We begin our Kwanzaa day with the words, Habri Gani! (Hu-bar'-ee go'-nee).  It means what's the news?  The answer is the principle or Nguzo Saba of the day.  So what are the seven principles of Kwanzaa?  Here they are.

Umoja (oo-mO-jah) - Unity.  We must stand together if we are to overcome our difficulties

Kujichagulia (coo'-gee-chah-goo-lee-ah) - Self-Determination.  We must not let anyone else decide who we are.  We must speak for ourselves and not let others speak for us.  Just because someone says you are lazy or useless or worthless does not mean it is true!

Ujima (oo-gee'-mah) - Cooperative Work and Responsibility.  We must work together to build the world of which we wish to be a part.  We must look after each other and understand that we are responsible to ourselves, our families and our communities.

Ujamaa (oo-jah'-mah) - Cooperative Economics.  We shop at stores owned and run by African Americans to make sure that we are supporting small business.  (My family has opened this out to all small businesses in our area.  Mom and pop are under attack from Big Box.  Support small businesses when you can.)

Nia (nee'-uh) - Purpose.  We must move through our lives with purpose and we must understand that our lives have purpose.  Approach your life with goals and actions that help you achieve good things.

Kuumba (k-oom-bah) - Creativity.  Leave the world a more beautiful place than when you found it.

Karamu (kAr'-um-moo) - The feast of Kwanzaa where you eat traditional African American foods, sing, dance, tell stories and celebrate!

Imani (i-mah'-nee) - Faith.  You must have faith in yourself and in the hope that we can build a better world.  (You can apply this to religious faith if you like, but my family does not)

The last part of the celebration deals with reflection.  You can do readings of African American artists, poets, teachers, and philosophers.  You can discuss how you plan to make the Nguzo Saba a reality in your life.  You can talk about what you have done in the past year to live up to the principles of Kwanzaa.  That bit is up to you.  Here are some readings to get you started.

So, get out there and see if you can find a Kwanzaa event!  Reflect on what you can do to make the world a better place.

Happy Kwanzaa!

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Storyteller's Toolkit: Hands

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.  

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.

Voice:  If you missed this post, just click here.

Eyes:  If you missed this post, just click here.

Face:  If you missed this post, just click here


Body:  If you missed the post, just click here

Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with the hands.

There are so many things to say about the hands.  I found more information about gesturing than I did about eye contact, or using the voice, which I found odd, but there you have it.  Apparently, the hands, really freak people out and they have no idea what to do with them.  What was most amusing to me was how many people had done videos about hands and gesture.  The best one belonged to Sean Buvala over at Storyteller.net.  Some of the things I found were wild and some were fascinating.  Some I found completely counter intuitive and others were only just sort of helpful.  Here is my top list of things I read this evening about employing gesture in storytelling that either amused me, surprised me, or was actually useful.

Toastmasters International did an entire pamphlet on how to add appropriate gestures to your work.

Then, there was this fascinating, incredibly long article about research on creating effective storytelling robots by giving them gesture and controlling how long they gaze at audience members while trying to convince them of something.  I kid you not.

Then, there was a long article about the kinds of gesture people use, how they can be categorized and how they are employed by storytellers.

Take this link over to a youtube video of Sean Buvala explaining the best ways to infuse gesture into your stories.

Debbie Dunn puts her seven cents into the mix as well.

Karen Langford Chace has a great post about gesture in story.

Here's another video about using your hands effectively in presentation.

I even have a list of ten gestures to avoid!

I spent a long time reading things about gesture, why it is important, what you are supposed to do with it, and how to not look awkward in front of a group of people.  I spent lots of time watching videos about where your hands go and who knows what else.  Not surprisingly, lots of it is repetitive.

Hands can be your best friend as a storyteller, or your worst enemy.  They are never neutral.  They will either help you tell a story...or they will attack you.  It is important to know where your hands are and what they are doing.  Some folks are stingy with gesture, using it only as a kind of modifier to their work.  Some don't employ gesture at all, preferring to keep their hands under tight control.  Some folks have 'soft' gestures that don't quite form.  Here is a clip of me telling a story that is all about the gesture. It is called Red, Red Lips.  For a laugh, turn the sound completely off and just watch my hands.

If perchance you've read the posts about voice and eyes, you will note that I am not one to stint while employing either one of those, but this story is very much about gesture.

So, what are some ways to think about your hands?  I have only one piece of advice when it comes to gesture...GO FOR IT!

1.  Be deliberate.  Decide what you want your hands to do, and then go for it.  Your hands can either take your audience where you want them to go, or they can be floppy, mushy, useless appendages that are flapping about like useless bits of paper towel at the end of your arms.  The choice is yours.

2.  Be decisive.  Don't hold back.  Go for it.  Commit to what you are going to do, and then make the entire gesture.  Don't do it half way.  Do not hold your hands against your sides from shoulder to elbow and simply flap the bottom part of your arms.  You will look the robot from 'Lost In Space'.

4.  Don't Let Them Attack You!  If you don't know where your hands are, they are probably attacking you.  They will play with your hair, your clothes, your ears, your belt, earrings, necklaces, and anything else you might happen to have with you.  They are not your friends if they are not occupied.  Remember, "Idle hands are the Devil's playground."

5.  Think Illustratively.  Your hands have the power to create pictures.  Your hands can be everything from the top of the windowsill to the finger that shuts off the light switch.  As long as your hands show us what your words are saying, they will become part of the story.  In other words, you are the picture book!  See the pictures!  Be the pictures!  Live the pictures!

6.  Small Is Useless.  Making tiny gestures is really useless.  Nobody can see them and they don't translate very far beyond you.  One of the things you must do as a storyteller is to fill the space around you.  You should be looking to increase your size, not squish it down smaller than you are.  Just as a cornered cat will turn to the side and make itself look larger, you must use your hands and arms to 'increase' your size.  Thing Big! 

7.  Don't hold them!  Your hands are not going to go anywhere.  Don't clasp them unless you are doing it for emphasis.  Hold them at your sides, or keep them in some neutral position.  Choose your own neutral position.  Make sure your neutral position really is neutral, and not actually giving off a vibe that is counterproductive to your storytelling.

8.  Create themes for your audience!  If you create physical shapes with your hands that repeat in your story, your audience can use them as a point of reference.  You can also use them to create strong audience participation.  Your audience can do the gestures with you and enter the world of story.  This tends to tickle an audience no matter what the age.  Watch the first six seconds of the video below and you'll see what I mean.

 When you employ your hands, employ them!  Don't be afraid of them, they can do all sorts of fabulous things.  They can make stories materialize right before your audience, and they can also give your audience a way to join you in story.

So, free your hands!  Free your gestures!  Let your arms go!  Be free!

Empower Yourself.  Empower Your Stories.

Happy Telling!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Storyteller's Toolkit: THE EYES

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.  

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.

Voice:  If you missed this post, just click here.


Face:  If you missed this pos, just click here.

Hands:  If you missed the post, just click here.

Body:  If you missed the post, just click here

Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with the eyes.

Using the elements in the toolkit is what separates folks who just get up and tell a story, from a crafted tale performed for an audience.

I spent the last two hours jumping around the web reading articles about eye contact.  So, for starters, I will link over to some of the ones I found most useful.

This article was written by Debbie Dunn and it gives reasons why eye contact is important.

This post is from Wheresmyquarter.blogspot.com.  It has tips about effective use of eye contact.  The blog is written by Sean Buvala. 

Here are some useful tips from a site called Opencolleges.edu.au

Lastly, because everyone's got a point of view, here is an article that says that eye contact is not always a good thing.  Though, because of the way storytellers make eye contact, this doesn't really relate to us.  I still thought it was interesting.

The upshot is that there are lots and lots of articles about eye contact.  Everyone knows it is important.  You can use it to convince your audience of your point of view, psyche your audience into not realizing how nervous you are, show sincerity, connect with them, and on and on in an endless series of very good, solid advice.

The thing to understand about your eyes as a storyteller is that eye contact is just the very beginning of what you can do with them.  Unless you are working with an audience that has impaired vision, you can use your eyes to control your audience.  Some storytellers stumble on this mechanism without being conscious of what they are doing, but others figure it out and use it to its full potential.   

Here is a clip of the brilliant Diane Ferlatte making an audience jump through hoops.  Watch her eyes.

Your eyes have lots of power.  They are a perfect tool for keeping and guiding an audience.


1.  Create character.  Your eyes give the audience cues as to who is speaking.  Notice how Diane's eyes change when she drops into Eve, The Lord, and Adam.

2.  Cue audience participation.  Your eyes can let an audience know that something is expected of them.  Diane does this right at the onset of the story.

3. Comment on the the story.  When you are commenting on the tale, your eyes can let the audience know you are speaking directly to them out of story.  Diane lets the audience know her feelings about the whole 'unlucky' Friday.  Asides are also accomplished this way.

4.  Create atmosphere.  When you want to make the story scary, intense, light, silly, or you wish to change the current feel, your eyes can do that.  Open them, close them, narrow them, look form side to side, all of these things are typical things all people do with their eyes.  Whenever you make a choice to change the wideness of your eyes, it will set off a kinesthetic response in your audience.  They will know what is happening with that character because they know how their eyes feel when they are doing certain things.

5.  Warn your audience.  This is especially true for little kids.  Your eyes can give them a head's up if there is going to be something scary.

6.  Humor.  Your eyes can lighten an otherwise intense situation.  When Adam looks around to point out they haven't got any neighbors, we get to laugh at at a situation that is clearly about to escalate.

7.  Filling in the pauses.  Just because you are silent doesn't mean nothing is happening.  Your eyes can let the audience see what is about to happen.  They can also give off false clues so that you can spring something that is either funny or scary.  You can also let a character in the tale comment on the situation at hand with your eyes.

8.  Be wary!  With young audiences, if you cement the world of the story in their minds, and then you look off at a distant point and announce you see something, most of them will turn around and look in the direction you are looking.  It is funny, but a bit annoying if it disrupts the flow of the story!

I am certain you can think of many more ways to use your eyes for specific purposes during a tale, but these are what I consider the basics.

I would like to point out that I did not say that this was easy, but it can enhance your stories if you are willing to give it a try!

Happy Telling!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Storyteller's Tool Kit: THE VOICE

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.


Eyes:  If you missed the post, click here.

Face:  If you missed this pos, just click here.

Hands:  If you missed the post, click here.

Body:  If you missed the post, just click here

Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with voice.

Whether you are signing, speaking, singing, or using sound effects, your voice is an important part of the tale.  Not just the speaking element, but how you use your voice, and how you maintain vocal health.

Earlier this year I did a blog about the care and feeding of the voice.
Here are some other links about taking care of your voice.
Diane Bradon
Doug Lipman
Beth Lawrence

As a storyteller, I use lots of sound effects, character voices, and non-pedestrian sounds to convey my stories.  This is not necessary.  You can use lots of sound effects or none at all.  The choice must be yours.  Do not let someone pressure you to do something that makes you uncomfortable.  If you are uncomfortable, the audience will be uncomfortable.  Here is a clip of me telling 'The Monkey's Heart', a very vocal heavy story.

That clip is obviously an extreme example of putting sounds and voices into your stories, but there is no need to go that far to create a fun piece of storytelling.

Whether you use sound effects or not, there are some things you can definitely do to help your voice work with your stories.

1.  Pace

The flow at which your stories land on your audience can sweep them along, or hold them spell bound on the edge of their seats.    Play with the rate of speech to control the story and take the audience on a wild ride.

2.  Rhythm.

Find places to give your stories a rhythm.  The rhythm will set off a signal for your audience, and give them something to listen for.  It also allows you to build in some laughs or relief for the listeners.

3.  Volume.

Look for places to control how loud or soft your stories fall.  Draw your audience in with softer tones, hit them with power when you want them holding onto their seats.  Use your volume to  take your audience into the heart of your tale.

4.  Sounds.

Sounds help fill in background and build images that fill out your tales and give them textures.  Sounds don't have to be exotic.  It can be as simple as whistling into the mic, making the sound of the wind, sighing.  Do what you can.

5.  Pitch.

You can easily create character choices by simply changing the pitch of your voice.  Play with your voice and see what sorts of pitches you can easily make.

6.  The Pause.

Pinter knew what he was doing when he wrote those fantastic pauses.  Pausing allows an audience to catch on, consider what just happened, predict what is going to happen next, or laugh, scream, wiggle, or whatever they need to do.  They can also be used for comic relief, or to enhance suspense.


There are lots of articles about the best way to find out who you are and what to do with your voice.  Here are a few if you really want to get into it.

Rachel Hedman
Anne Glover
Effective storytelling:  A Manual for Beginners

There are plenty of resources if you want to get ideas about using your storytelling voice.  Have fun, play with your voice, make sure you maintain its health, and figure out ways to challenge yourself.  Playing with stories can be lots of fun.  Discovering new ways to make your point of view and voice shine is exciting.

Empower yourself....Empower your listeners.

Happy Telling!