MAYBE IT WAS our central location in Cal Anderson Park, or perhaps it was all those drifters, athletes and couples out for an evening stroll who stopped to watch our West African dance class, but I was having trouble coordinating my shoulders and torso to do the chest undulations that are a hallmark of West African dance.
Teacher Sarah Lee Parker told us to get our footwork down first, especially if we were new, but said the chest thrusts were a key part of expression in the dance. I wanted to undulate my spine with the best of them.
Musicians are among the best features of African dance class. We had four drummers for ours, based at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill but held in the park on the warm summer night I joined in.
We warmed up to a “Sofa” dance, based on a rhythm from the Malinke people, an ethnic group in Guinea. The rhythms were straightforward and easy to get into, once I let go of my concern about our audience, which had been drawn in by the drumming and dancing.
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We learned a simple dance to warm up — Parker taking us first through the footwork, then adding arms and, of course, the spine undulation. For some reason, Americans tend to go with feet and arms first and a stiff spine before they start to add in the chest and torso movement, she said.
She then took us into a more complicated dance called “Soboninkun,” also from Guinea, sharing some of the dance’s history. For the dance, she encouraged us to get low in our legs and sassy in our hips as we did lifts onto the balls of our feet, swiveled into dips and moved back and forth and side to side.
I could often get the footwork going and sometimes with my arms, too, when we practiced the steps. When we worked on chest movements in combination with knee lifts, my body for the most part obeyed. But once we got up to speed, I frequently got turned around and forgot what went where and at what time. Parker said it usually takes about six classes to get a real feel for the dance.
I survived the choreography, though I’m fairly certain most body parts were never really in sync.
Then we lined up in rows and pared the dance down to one move at a time; that’s when class got fun and rhythmic. I could lose myself in each move, not worrying about the next, getting wilder and sassier as we went. My heart rate ramped up, and I started to breathe hard. I no longer cared that there was dew on my bare feet, or that people were watching.
Throughout class, Parker kept encouraging us to smile. It doesn’t matter if you’re technically perfect if you’re not smiling and having fun, she said.
She also said that African dance has mental benefits. I believe it. There is something about a dance that demands your whole body and mind be involved, moving to the insistent sound of drums. It’s something that even the uncoordinated can enjoy. Mostly, it’s about being in full expression in your body, and who can resist that? Not me.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.