The Heartbeat Of Africa

A Village Without Music Is A Dead Village. —African Proverb

Amy Dalness
12 min read
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Only physicists and dancers can explain the energy created by a booming beat, extending beyond the dance floor with the power to make even the most left-footed among us shake her rear. From the parking lot nearly a block away, the sound coming out of the Maple Street Dance Space was distinctive—the beat of multiple drums, stomping feet, the hoots and hollers of an excited audience. No one could mistake it for anything other than a party full of energy, life and people having fun.

The Maple Street Dance Space is easy to miss as you're driving by on Central; the yellow-and-red block label marking the building is noticeable only to the eagle-eyed or those consciously seeking it out. At first glance, it looks like most other commercial buildings in Albuquerque—just a space with a name.

On the night of the African Dance Party, held in honor of Black History Month, a tent in the parking lot covered an African feast. People flowed out of the door to take a breath of fresh air or talk to a friend. The beat of the drums radiated, and the little space hidden beyond the chainlink fence allowed the life within it to permeate beyond its walls—the life of an African dance community.

Maple Street hasn't been around for very long in its current form, nor is it the only place in Albuquerque where African dance is being taught. The space originally was home to the Blue Tribe School, founded by Zimbabwe-born dancer Rujeko Dumbutshena and African dancer and drummer Chris Berry. Blue Tribe was dedicated entirely to the study and performance of African dance. Maple Street is now the host to a number of dance classes and workshops beyond the African realm, including yoga, Capoeira and belly dance, but, for many people, it still seems to be the epicenter for African dance in Albuquerque.

African dance is like the people who study it—diverse, complex and full of energy. From every country on the vast continent of Africa, there is a different style, a rhythmic language unique to its people. To say all African dance is the same is like saying all snowflakes are alike; they're made up of the same basic materials, certainly, but each has a very different look. There are many different regional dances being explored within Albuquerque. Haitian, Zimbabwean, West African and Senegalese are just a few of the styles that are practiced weekly, and as the community expands more styles are discovered. Outside of Maple Street, classes are being taught at Out ch'Yonda, the Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center, the University of New Mexico and Pearls of the Antilles. In the past, they've also been taught at the Harwood Arts Center. It's highly possible that there are other lesser known places as well.

“The African dance community in Albuquerque is just really growing and shifting and mutating,” says Romy Keegan, owner of the Maple Street Dance Space and an African dance teacher, “and it's really blossoming—it's like a multiheaded flower. It's ever-evolving.”

African Dance in the Duke City

YafahRai Chapman teaches at Out ch'Yonda and also dances with Casadimanza, a troupe that dances at Maple Street. She grew up performing African dance in talent shows and on the local public broadcasting station with her sister in a group called Little Flowers while growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Dancing has been my love and my passion since I was a little girl,” she says.

As she started to get more serious about dance, she studied with a lot of master African and African-American dance teachers and drummers in New York. When she moved to Albuquerque four years ago, she knew she wouldn't find the same culture as back home. Actually, she wasn't sure if she would find an African dance community in Albuquerque at all.

“When I first came here, my experience was culture shock,” Chapman says. “Where I came from was predominantly Black. So when I came here, I thought I'd be seeing a more native population. I didn't know that Black folk were, maybe, 3 to 4 percent of the population in Albuquerque. Then, on my fourth day here, I found Blue Tribe.”

Chapman began studying with Dumbutshena at the Blue Tribe School and danced with their troupe. Shortly after Dumbutshena left Albuquerque to teach at the Sarah Lawrence College in the Bronx, the Blue Tribe dance troupe disbanded and Chapman began dancing with a new troupe Casadimanza. Chapman found people not only studying African dance, she found Africans in Albuquerque teaching dance and many serious drum students, like Heidi Alina, who is considered one of the prominent female drummers in the nation.

Keegan refers to Alina as the “Drum Queen” because of her dedication to African drumming and her willingness to coordinate drummers for nearly every class and performance in the city. But Heidi didn't start out playing the drums.

“I started as a pianist, but I've always been a rhythm fanatic,” Alina says. She got into African drumming after attending a “Rumba Party” and soon began taking classes in Nigerian drumming while living in Boulder, Colo. Chris Berry from the Blue Tribe School and the Panjea Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to bringing African and Western culture together through dance, came to Boulder for a workshop and Alina attended.

“He did a workshop with the people I was studying with up there, and I just fell in love with his style and the music he was teaching,” Alina says. After traveling down from Boulder to study privately with Berry a few times a year, Alina moved to Albuquerque two years ago and makes her living with African drumming.

The West African dance troupe Casadimanza is now the most prominent African performance group in Albuquerque. Started by Mary Nakigan and her Senegalese husband Kobiana, known as Kobi, Casadimanza has filled the role Blue Tribe once had, giving serious African dancers a place to shine.

To keep up with their studies and promote a total learning experience for their students, the Nakigans travel to Senegal every year to visit Kobi's family and study with the local musicians. With them, they bring a few interested participants to Senegal for a few weeks to experience the culture, study dance or just visit Africa for the first time.

“It's really cool to watch how it changes people's lives,” Nakigan says. “You go somewhere that's so different from you, and you're really immersed in the culture. You really learn a lot from their world.”

Sisters and Brothers

Albuquerque is home to many talented and devoted African dancers. Chapman and the dancers of Casadimanza only demonstrate a sampling of what this community has to offer.

“The African dance community is a large community, it's like a family,” Alina says. She takes her daughter, Mariama Aisha Diatta, to every event she attends. “When I take her to class, I can rely on the other moms to take care of her.”

Alina says that with the Western culture dominating in the United States, everyone is so isolated. They aren't focused on the community raising the children as happens in many African cultures. African dance is one way to break down those social barriers we have created.

Camilla Dodson was born in a small country in southern Africa called Lesotho. She has been in Albuquerque for over five years teaching dance and speaking for the New Mexico Humanities Council. She uses her experiences and her training in African dance to teach diversity and tolerance to children.

“In a community of anywhere, when you see someone at first, you see the things that are on the outside,” Dodson says. “Once you get to know them, then all the things inside come out.”

Her dance troupe, called African Sounds, consists of mostly women. They rehearse once a week at the Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center, range in age from 4 to 75 and are as culturally diverse as Albuquerque itself.

“We've had White people, Hispanic people, Chinese people, but, unfortunately, not many African-Americans,” Dodson says. This seems to be true of many of the classes in Albuquerque. At Maple Street, the students are predominantly white. Nia Harris, a member of the Casadimanza dance troupe, started studying African dance with Dumbutshena in an introductory African dance class offered at the University of New Mexico.

“Once you get into it, you're hooked,” Harris says. Before taking the dance class at UNM, Harris was not aware of the African scene in Albuquerque, despite the fact that she has an African stepfather and was no stranger to African culture.

“The word is not really out there,” she said. “Which it should be, everyone should see that culture. It feels natural, it feels a part of me and I feel like, as an African-American, it's part of my heritage. There should be more African-Americans dancing.”

According to Harris, one explanation could be the cost of classes. “When I took classes from Rujeko, she helped me out by not charging me anything to pursue dance. Maybe free classes will help,” she says. “The word needs to get out. Since I've been performing, I've brought friends to classes and a lot more people have seen this community and inquired about the class.”

When Chapman came here from New York, she said she did notice the lack of African-Americans in the dance classes. “I'm coming from New York, where, in the urban city, most of the people in my community were Black,” she says. Most of the teachers she learned from were Black or African, she says, and it is much different here.

“It was different coming here, because there are a lot less African women and African-American women teaching dance,” she says. “African dance, or any dance, is sacred. If a person learns a skill and goes after the information, and they teach it, they have to carry a certain respect. They are learning someone else's life.”

“If the person is studying someone else's history,” she continues, “someone else's culture, they have to be responsible with that information. Have I seen people who aren't responsible? Yeah, I have. And I have seen non-African people study this information and bring that respect.”

According to Chapman, one reason African-Americans might not be coming to learn African dance is because they don't feel comfortable taking an African dance class from a white person.

“Until the issue of the race relation in the U.S. is addressed, we can come together and dance, but there are still painful issues that keep people separated,” she says. “I think it's important that people learn about other people's cultures. It brings communities together.”

Keegan says that as a white woman teaching African dance, she is always seeking validation from the Black community. She has been studying African dance in Albuquerque for over 15 years under six different teachers and in two dance troupes. She first learned West African dance from Sarah Brown, a white woman, and later Congolese from Kim Vetter, another white woman, but the bulk of her study has been under Rujeko Dumbutshena and Mabiba Bagnae.

“It's about loving the dance and the culture and the beauty of what it is,” she says. “I teach out of great respect, but I can absolutely see and understand and have compassion for that perspective,” she says. “It's been lovely to have Nia and YafahRai and Ndidi in Casadimanza so we can have dialogue, and keep a sisterly relationship with each other.”

“Dance brings so much joy to so many people,” Keegan says. “We are following our hearts and following what we've been led to do. I don't see a right or wrong to African dance. It is everyone's different experience and everybody's different path to follow.”

Social Tradition and African Roots

Laryea Addy has been teaching drumming and dance for about 10 years after coming to the U.S. from Ghana. He enjoys teaching children dance and games because, growing up in Africa, that's how he learned how to speak and interact with his community. Addy took the job of teaching African dance at UNM after Dumbutshena left for New York.

He says that in Africa there are basically two aspects of dance: traditional and social. “The community is really important in Africa, and the drumming brings the people together. We need the people around and the music brings them,” he says. “What we do here in America is the social thing, and less of a spiritual thing. Although, how can one spirit do anything, you need the community of spirits.”

“It has nothing to do with anything but the community,” he continues. “People love food, and food is one of those things you can use to bring people together. We need to use that to bring people together.”

In the traditional use of the drumming, the music is very formal and there are specific rhythms and ways one needs to play, Addy adds. You need to know how to respond to the song, how to respond to the drum—there are very specific aspects traditional musicians need to know, he says.

“When I sit with the traditional people, I can only play a bell and I only know maybe 5 to 10 percent of what they play,” Addy says. “With the social, the songs are easy and anyone can participate.”

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