Dance instructor "Sister Faye" Walker (left) shows me how to improve a dance step. Ash Daniel photo
It seems unlikely, but here I am, backstage at the Landmark Theater on a hot Saturday morning in June, barefoot and wearing a gold, patterned wrap skirt, a matching head scarf and a sleeveless, white eyelet shirt. I'm in a circle with four other women. We clasp hands and close our eyes as Traci Johnson, one of our lead dancers, starts an impromptu prayer, paying respect to our ancestors and asking for the energy to perform to the best of our abilities.
When I started taking an African dance class at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center back in September, I didn't expect to end up here, preparing to dance in front of an audience. Exercise was my main motivation, and the class gave me something to do while my 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, was in her jazz/tap session.
But it wasn't long before I started to wonder what I had been thinking. As I tried to follow the moves of our instructor "Sister Faye" Walker — feet going one way, arms going another — I felt inept and out of place. I couldn't get things right.
And it wasn't just a feeling. I was inept and out of place. During one of the early classes, we were asked to take turns doing a solo dance in front of the drummers. One of my classmates actually clapped one hand over her mouth and pointed at me with the other one, laughing, as I performed what I imagine looked like a clumsy Irish jig. I was glad to have an excuse for not going to class the next week, and I contemplated ending my brief dance experience.
But I have a stubborn streak, and I don't like to give up on something just because it's hard. Besides, after a long day of wrestling with words — and the occasional recalcitrant writer —I liked the rigorous physical activity. (Did I mention that African dance involves a lot of running, hopping, jumping and kicking?)
I was also intrigued by the exposure to a different culture. As a sign of respect and gratitude, dancers would touch the floor in front of the instructor at the beginning of class and do the same in front of the drummers at the end of class. The dancers and drummers would play off each other, matching moves to rhythm and vice versa.
Sister Faye emphasized the cultural heritage linking our class to age-old African tribal rituals used during birth, coming of age, marriage and religious ceremonies. During one session, she urged us to "Breathe the air of our ancestors."
I was picturing my Swiss/German Mennonite ancestors, who weren't exactly known for dancing. At my maternal grandparents' church in rural Pennsylvania, men and women sat on separate sides of the aisle and wore modest apparel. For women, that meant round-collared dresses, long sleeves, black shoes and stockings, long, pinned-up hair topped by coverings made from white netting, and certainly no makeup or jewelry.
I wondered what my ancestors would have made of Sister Faye's ankle bracelets, bangles and colorful garb?
Although my parents adopted a less conservative lifestyle, they did not allow me to take dance lessons as a child. Dancing of any kind — even ballet — was lumped in with other worldly temptations such as alcohol and smoking. (There's an old joke that says Mennonites don't make love standing up. Why? Because it might lead to dancing!)
And yet, there I was, swinging my hips to the drumbeat, trying to thrust my upper body forward and listen for "the break," a change in rhythm that signaled it was time to start a new step.
It should be noted that my parents have relaxed their views on dancing. They haven't missed a single one of their granddaughter's dance recitals, and they were in the audience at the Landmark to witness my debut. And though I can't claim African heritage, I have my own link to the continent: I lived in Malawi, a small country sandwiched between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, for three years as a preschooler while my parents served with the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief, service, community-development and peace agency supported by Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches.
Despite my stiffness and ineptitude, my classmates and teacher were helpful and welcoming. Sister Faye avoided singling me out too often. Even the woman who laughed at my dancing offered to make me a wrap skirt, or lapa, as it's called. Another dancer, Gloryah Smith, let me borrow one of her lapas for a class when I showed up in shorts. I connected with some of the younger, less-experienced dancers, who were also struggling to learn.
One of the more experienced dancers in our class, Maricia Chavis, showed amazing patience in answering my questions. She went over our dance sequence, showing me how to do the difficult moves. Chavis told me that when she first tried African dancing at age 18 — after years of taking all types of other dance classes — the moves felt natural: "I felt like my body was made for African." (Well, that makes one of us.)
A former dancer with the Elegba Folklore Society, Maricia signed up for African classes two years ago after a decade-long hiatus. Now 36, she teaches advanced-placement biology at John Marshall High School.
She's taken classes before with Sister Faye, one of two artistic directors of the Ezibu Muntu African Dance and Cultural Foundation, as well as with Babadunjo Olagunke, or "Bobby D," who is the other director.
Both teachers have a high energy level, Chavis says. "They make you want to dance because they get so excited about it."
As the class progressed through the fall and into winter, some dancers dropped out and others joined.
During class one spring day, Sister Faye looked at me and said, "You've made a lot of progress." That bolstered my confidence, so when it came time to sign up for the recital, I decided I was in.
As we rehearsed at the Landmark several days before the show, I ran into a friend whose daughter was to be in the recital as part of a tap-dancing performance. My friend complimented my dancing, adding, "I didn't know you had it in you."
You know what? Neither did I.