OBSESSIONS / Drumming up custom: For some it is therapy, for others it is a community knees-up. Elisabeth Winkler puts her back into African dancing

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The Independent Culture
It all started with my back. When African dancing unexpectedly turned out to be the cure for chronic back-pain, I became obsessed. For a die-hard puritan, it's been handy having a medicinal reason for going dancing. Now every Tuesday I bicycle down to the Malcolm X Community Centre in St Paul's, Bristol, to be carried away by the sound of drums.

Live drumming is integral to the exercise because the dancers take their instruction from the different beats. Even when I muff their message (it's not easy to learn drumtalk) their energy is transporting - it's impossible to feel lazy when the rhythms are pounding out.

Our teacher, Barrington Anderson, is a wiry dynamo who drives the class with mischief and humour - although he always says that it's us who inspire him. A dancer since he was nine, he has specialised in Ghanaian dance for 20 years and was artistic director of Ekome, the Afro-Caribbean dance company.

African dancing has been his therapy too. His family moved from Jamaica when he was six to St Paul's, where Anderson still lives. 'In a society full of poverty and problems, dancing gave me a means of expression, a sense of my roots and a profession.' Now he plans to launch Britain's first school of African and Caribbean Dance and Music to do the same for others. Unlike the West which invested so much in the printed word, in Africa, values were taught and information passed on via thousands of different drumbeats and dances.

'Dancing together is the best community-relations exercise ever,' Anderson says, but the class receives no funding. Maybe that's why we perform Ghau, the 'money dance' every week. Traditionally danced in the marketplace, its stylish, sassy movements symbolise wealth and trade. Danced in a circle to the high-speed hammer of the drums, you end up using muscles you didn't know you had. Everything gets a work-out: the waist, the chest, the shoulders - and there's plenty of laughter.

African dance reverses all those mantras, such as in ballet, about keeping the back straight and the tail tucked in. I dance flat-foot, knees bent, back arched, bottom out and it feels so right. I'm fitter than I've ever been and my back-pain is gone. One movement, called Ewe, is brilliant: elbows akimbo, the shoulders are jabbed back and forth while the pelvis is thrust forth and back. If I miss a couple of classes, my back-pain returns with a vengeance.

Cherril Smith, a member of the class, has studied Middle- Eastern dance but prefers African. 'Although the shoulder and hip movements are similar, it's less introspective, because you are dancing as part of the group - it's fun.'

Far from being primitive, African dance has complex choreographies. Every strike of the drum has a function. A different dance will accompany the cutting of a tree, the birth of a son, a funeral, hunting and war. Guyanese-born Richard Davies who plays the master drum at our class has studied Ghanaian drums since 1977 and would like to see this tribal feeling return. 'In Africa, dancing is a natural way of bringing the people together, making them feel part of the community - not quite the same feeling as shopping in Tesco's is it?'

Details of classes and workshops from: Barrington Anderson, Unity Arts (0272 442340); Bristol Dance Centre (0272 292118); Adzido (071-359 7453); Shikisha (081-509 2450); Kokuma (021- 554 9635); West Yorkshire Dance Centre (0532 426066)

(Photograph omitted)

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