26 January 2011

“You made everyone have to dance tonight.”

(for current lack of a better word - call this Zen Part A)

My African dance teacher, to me. Tonight.

I’ve started going to (West African) dance regularly again … and by regularly, I mean two weeks in a row. That I plan to maintain as much as I can. Again. I started dancing (this) in spring of 2002, and I got into it more seriously in the fall. My first teacher was Malian, and my first classes were in too-large-or-too-small-classrooms-or-sometimes-alcoves around campus. I had started modern dance around the same time, and I was doing step (African/American, not drill team-like), but once I started classes with Joh…I gave everything else up. It didn’t matter anymore. Nothing compared with this.
It wasn’t like that at first. After the first time, I wasn’t sure if I had done anything difficult, actually, or even athletic-like at all.

Then I woke up and I couldn’t move.

And the next time and the next time. If you’re doing it right (and there are infinite ways to do it right), you use muscles that Western life (and most Western dances) never touch. And the only way to do it right is to stop thinking.

Stop. Thinking.

Stop being self-conscious. Stop counting steps, stop the 8-counts so many dances are given in, stop marking and thinking “right..left..left.”
If you let go of everything, absolutely everything (and this is going to mean a lot of pain and stiffness in ensuing days, for a few weeks)..then you’re doing it, and you’re approximating it if not already there. It’s not about you. It’s not about counting. There is no counting. To dance, you listen to the drum, the drum tells you what to do, you do it, and you become part of the music. If the drum keeps going with a particular rhythm, and you only did that particular step four times in the practicing bits – it doesn’t matter. You keep going. And you keep going and you keep going until the drum changes rhythms. The only way you know what step to do, what to do next, and when to do it, is because the drummers and the drums tell you.
And that’s why I stopped going to the other classes. The counting bits felt too artificial, and the dancing itself felt too stiff.

African dance means letting go.

Plantain tree in front of hospital, Mvangan

(This will have something to do with writing and medicine. Really. And it’s not even contrived. But if I write all of that at once, it would be far too long-winded for even me. So, I wait).

I needed more dance than the weekly and sometimes bimonthly classes. In the city, there is an amazing place with adult, drop-in classes of every type I can think of quickly. Six, seven studios. African dance – Senegalese, this time – was on the top floor (is, probably). Four to seven drummers, windows open, studio pounding. There aren’t a lot of West African dance classes in any city, not enough to really differentiate levels – or it’s just not part of the culture of it. I don’t know. So this class, the Saturday 4:30 class, was mixed. Professionals – so many of them – on down to me. It was hard. Every week was hard, and then there would be a few steps I already knew, and a few more, and a few more. I went as much to dance as to watch the other dancers. Unbelievable. I learned there that there are infinite ways to do it “right.” Watching. In awe. And learning. It’s joy with drums pounding so loudly and so viscerally that you have no idea how to hear the teacher or to respond to the calls that go with the dance.

Market in Antananarivo, Madagascar

I kept going, Malian, Senegalese, sometimes Ivoirien. My last year of college, we performed for hundreds-of-some-number. That must have been the first dance I fully memorized, rather than individual steps.
I had wanted to go to Africa since I was young: six, seven, maybe. One major life goal, accomplished. Now, the goal is to go every year that I can – and since (and including) 2005, I’ve been in Africa every year except 2010. I have hopes for 2011. At any rate, dance, and the culture of the dance may have influenced my decision. I don’t know anymore.

Class tonight was hard. The women there have been going every week, at least once a week, for years. They know the dances. For the last two we did, the teacher didn’t even really show the steps, just marked them, and then we were off… and I followed as well as I could.

Beach in Dakar, Senegal

But then it was the end. The end of every African dance class is a circle that includes the drummers. Everyone, anyone, can go into the middle of the circle and do anything they want. You go with the drums, and the drums are follow. The teacher saw that I was still in the music. She nodded at me. And I went.
These are the minutes of zen, of absolute engagement with sometime so much larger than the self. During the class, as much as I try to forget everything, I’m working on learning the steps, on improving, on adding to the repertoire of what I know. But in that circle, everything explodes. Things I remember from – what? where? come back. It’s exuberant. It’s the energy of the past hour and a half of everyone in the room and it’s not me, alone, in the middle, but it’s the total energy propelling me up, into the air (this often involves a lot of the jumping moves. I think several of those must be Malian; they’re the most ingrained. Thank you, Joh).
And at the end, she said “you made everyone have to dance tonight.”
Everyone made me have to dance tonight.

They start learning young. Ecole Maternelle, 11 fevrier 2007 (Youth Day), Mvangan

In the beginning years, I was intimidated by the circles. I was part of the energy, I loved the energy, but I had no idea what to do or what I could do if I ever ventured in. Now, I always go. It’s the homage to the music and the dance and the drummers and the dancers and the connection across time and culture and country and…
yes, it’s ridiculous and melodramatic and sappy.
It just happens to be true, somehow. 

Last night, I went to a Malian jazz show with several Peace Corps friends. We’re from different countries, though all in West/Central Africa. One of the drummers for my class today happened to be the kora player last night. I couldn’t sit. This is often true of me and music, but this was African music, there were drums, and if I’ve learned anything in these 8 years-going-on-9, it’s that I listen to the drums, and I do what the drums tell me to do. So I got up, I went to the back of the room, and I danced. It wasn't all out, because this wasn't a dance class. I was partly marking things, but mostly, I wasn't thinking at all and just doing, gently, what the drums told me to do. For me, that is the honor and the homage that I not only can give but am obliged to give.

(This must have happened during a dance class some years ago, because I wrote it down.)


Joh says
            in Mali we like objects.
            People, we love
without exception.

I know the custom.
I kneel, kiss my fingertips
press them to the ground.



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