Rhythms for dance
Stainsby Festival, Derbyshire, England 2004. I am back at one of my favourite gatherings to facilitate two community drum circles at midday on the Saturday and Sunday of the Festival. I am also excited to know that Anna Mudeka, a prolific artist from Zimbabwe is running traditional dance classes. I had met Anna in Scotland the previous year at The African Drum Village ( Sadly no longer running) , a gathering of teachers from across the rhythmical diaspora of the planet and students, mostly from the UK.
Once I had set up my camp, I went in search of Anna. The site is small and it did not take long to find her. She was happy to see me and we hugged and grabbed a spot to sit and chat. She asked me if I would drum for the dance class. I said it would be an honour and that I could grab a couple of other players from my crew to create a small ensemble. She was delighted and we arranged to meet for a run-through.
We met up the next morning at 9am to give us time to get prepared for the class at 11. She showed us the support parts, a rhythm in 6/8 and gave me a call motif that I could use to shift the group from one dance move to the next. All 3 of us had plenty of experience and soon we were locked into the groove and Anna began her dance. I used the call motif at the beginning of the 8th repetition of a move to transition to the next one. She was going to showcase 5 moves for the workshop.
As we were playing a young man appeared and sat on the grass beside us. He had a small djembe strung over his shoulder which he took off and began to play. It was clear within minutes that he had not clocked the time signature we were using and his constant playing without space was causing a drag. As I said, we were all experienced and were able to hold steady but it was like having a mosquito in your ear. Not pleasant. I gave a call to end the groove and we all stopped except for our new friend. It took him a while to notice and he then stopped.
“Wow” he said, “That was fun. Why did you stop?”
I introduced myself and Anna and explained to him that this was a rehearsal for a culturally specific dance class. I told him it was fine to watch but that our limited practice time meant we needed to focus on the task at hand, which was to support Anna with what she needed. If he could pick up one of the support rhythms he was welcome to play along.
“Oh I just play from Spirit” he said, “I don’t believe in structure”
“That’s cool” I said, “You will love the drum circle later today then where you can bring your spirit and play freely. For this moment however I am going to ask you to please listen if you don’t feel to play a supporting rhythm.”
He stood up, threw his djembe over his shoulder, and told me that I was a drum fascist before walking off down the field. Anna gave me a smile and a wee bow and we got back to work. The dance class was a huge success which finished with some free form dance solos, which I got to also play for. Such a challenge. Moving in rhythm in the moment with a dancer is a profound exercise in being present and in realising that there are no mistakes. Only learning moments. There is after all, only the moment. It makes you wonder is the dancer making the drummer drum or is the drummer making the dancer dance. The answer of course is yes.
After the dance class we set up for the drum circle, a one-hour facilitation. We had about 100 participants and enjoyed our annual chance to play together for an hour. Anna blessed us with a traditional song from her culture and we ended on a high, layering in improvised rhythms from the lowest tone to the highest in a collaborative interactive dance with her song. A moment of Stainsby magic.
Our rhythmical friend from earlier in the day stood on the outside of the circle for the full hour with his drum over his shoulder, refusing my open hand of invitation to come and play. Everyone gets to make their own choices within their own context. No right or wrong in any of this. I set boundaries for the culturally specific dance class rehearsal out of respect and understanding for what Anna required and he chose not to agree to them. There were no boundaries set for the drum circle and he once again made his choice.
Life, as my mentor and friend Arthur Hull has said many times, is a dance.