Ball, heel. Ball, heel, I tell myself. I glance at a woman shuffling around the circle of people in front of me. Then I glance behind me at my dance instructor.
He’s a 28-year-old cyclone of arms and legs, and he’s coming right at me. I beg my body to follow the choreography while I try to keep up with the two drummers in a mirrored room at the University of Ghana’s School of Dance, lest I collide with my Ghanaian dance guru.
I think I have a pretty good sense of rhythm but this is my first African dance class and I’m not getting the movement as quickly as I would have hoped. Granted, I’m no professional, like the contestants on the recent slew of reality dance shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars or America’s Best Dance Crew.
But I’m African. This should come naturally, right?
I’ve wanted to take a traditional dance class since my arrival in Ghana three months ago because music and dance are integral aspects of Ghanaian culture—in addition to being an amusing, drunken denouement to my family’s social gatherings.
Our instructor, Kofi Anthonio, summed up the importance of dance in Africa before teaching us our first series of movements. “In Africa,” said Anthonio, to the seven females sitting in a circle on the dance floor, “music and dance are like the ocean in which we swim.”
When an American friend told me about Anthonio’s weekly five cedi ($3.58 CAD) class, I was ready to dive in. I peeled myself out of bed, took some cough syrup to combat my impending cold and strapped on my dancing shoes.
That was my first mistake.
“We always say we are dancing in a pool,” said Anthonio. “Before we get in, we take off our sandals. We need to respect our ancestors.”
While African dance is often used at cultural celebrations, it can also be used for religious worship.
Standing barefoot in a circle, we start chanting our names to get into the dancing spirit as Mustafa, one of the two drummers, pounded on a traditional Ghanaian drum that is played with stick and hand.
Minutes later, the tiny, mirrored dance studio filled with sound like a Sunday church service, punctuated with the pounding of Mustafa’s drum- the heart of any African dance rhythm. Lenny, the master drummer, gently chimed an African gankogui, a double bell made of iron that produces both a high pitched and low bass sound. I forgot about my cold as the hymn intensified and happily sang along as the bell and drum did their own melodic dance.
Our circle took on a whole new meaning once Anthonio explained its significance. “We normally dance in a clockwise direction in a circle. It signifies the life cycle and unity. I trust the person in front of me and the one at my back.”
Staring back at Anthonio as we performed the Gota, a partner’s dance hailing from Ghana’s Volta region, I tried to mimic his movement.
Mistake number two.
“Don’t worry if it’s not perfect,” said Anthonio. Of course, we need to stay true to movements, to respect our ancestors who gave them to us, but it takes time to get it,” laughed Anthonio, who has been studying African dance for seven years.
So as the dance gods and Anthonio intended it, I stopped thinking about the steps and crouched slightly to maintain the posture that many African dances demand. It was an intensely sweaty but fun two-hour workout that made me realize why African dance, a genre whose movements have inspired so many others, is strikingly beautiful.
Yes, the steps are important. But when it comes to African dance, it’s the minute you forget them and let the drum guide you that you are truly free.