FARMINGTON – As a group of kids settled in for storytime at the Farmington Public Library, there was something noticeably missing: a book.
Instead, there was a lady dressed in colorful clothes asking children to move their fingers, reach for the sky and wiggle their toes. The kids didn’t seem to mind the missing pages, as the storyteller started to describe the world of a black raven. As she flipped through the printed pages on the black easel in front of her, she incorporated American Sign Language, Diné language and simple body movements throughout the story.
This, Amy Becenti says, is the importance of oral, traditional storytelling. It gives kids a break from the often non-stop barrage of images and allows them to learn how to create their own. Becenti, 39, the lady in colorful clothes, is a facilitator with the Storydancer Project. TSP is a nonprofit founded by Zuleikha, a performer and educator, and is based in Santa Fe and Delhi, India.
“What the kids are kind of weirded out by is there is no picture,” she said. “But it’s this ancient form of listening to a storyteller, connecting emotionally and intellectually.”
Although Becenti now lives in Denver, she began her storytelling days at the Farmington Public Library when she was 19. When she moved to Santa Fe, she connected with Zuleikha at a conference and began incorporating components of the TSP curriculum into storyteller presentations at the Santa Fe Public Schools in 2009. Starting in 2013, she partnered with TSP to bring the storydancer program to the New Mexico Navajo Nation schools and early childhood centers, where she continues to present at least twice a year.
Becenti said when she notices kids are starting to get a little wiggly, she incorporates more body movements or uses one of TSP’s lessons called Take a Minute. It’s a brief pause in the story and a flow of easy and relaxed stretching.
Throughout the story, Becenti will incorporate Diné words to both teach the kids and maintain her connection to the language. “I use a little bit of Navajo vocabulary words and it’s kind of a bite-size approachable way of feeling tied to the language still for people like me who maybe don’t hear it spoken every day,” she said.
While Becenti has a few Navajo stories she tells, she also tries to include stories from many different cultures. “These are inter-tribal wisdom stories so they’re stories from Africa and the Middle East, too,” she said. She’ll ask the children questions, pulling out similarities and differences “to find the line to these cultures.”
The Storydancer Project allows her to weave her cultural heritage alongside her passion for movement, storytelling and dance. But Becenti’s biggest joy is always the connection with the children listening to the stories. “I love when my movements carry them away,” she said. “The feedback of being in the moment with that joy is such a gift.”