Chapter 18 She thought she’d give a short wave. She looked toward him.
Instead, a tall, older white man to his left caught her eye.
He was thin, swarthy, unshaven, with dark eyes and black
messy hair. A Jimi Hendrix T-shirt showed years of wear. The
jeans were rumpled, though by wear, not design. There was
something familiar, unsettling, about his pose as he hovered
over his drum. Too familiar, though she was sure he was a
stranger. The lanky torso suggested some substance abuse
that, even from this distance and with no facts, repulsed
her. Yet there was a kind of pucker of the lips, a loosening
of the shoulders before playing, that drew her attention.
Suddenly she realized that he was looking directly at her.
No, he was looking through her. She quickly looked away.
Josuf started with a short introduction and asked the assembled
members to first set their minds to the spirit of African
dance. “We are bringing ourselves, our bodies, our spirits,
close to the Mother Earth and her healing powers, her powers
of regeneration. We dance and drum without shoes, to
feel her power. If we feel locked in the cage of life, we can
now unlock this cage and begin to feel the fullness of our
freedom. This is a time to liberate ourselves from fears and
inhibitions, to enjoy our sensuous lively beings. We are free,
and at the same time we are safe. We work as a community,
men and women together, drummers and dancers, tapping
into the powers nature has given to us. Let us begin by lightly
warming up in a slow dance.” He signaled to the drummers.
Rosie had attended a number of dance gatherings.
Sometimes it was in classes, throughout Arizona, whenever
and wherever they were available. Sometimes drum circles
popped up in a plaza in the summer and dancers would
enter the round open space that invited color and movement.
The drummers would always make room for dancers
to enter and then flank them, as if surrounding an altar.
To Rosie, African dance had assumed the place of a virtual
altar in her fight against fear. The steadiness of the drums,
the unison of the dancers, the leadership of a man like Josuf
— all provided a time and space in which she could express
her sensuality and feel entirely safe. Indeed, the fact that the
dance took on a wildness and she could transport herself
away from reality increased its import. For this brief evening
workshop at Coconino Community College outside Flagstaff,
Arizona, the ordinary gymnasium floor would become hallowed
As if it were the natural order of things, the men became
the drummers and the women the dancers. The men
— dressed in various outfits — stood at the drums; the
women stood, spread out at arm’s length from each other,
waiting for Josuf to instruct them in specific dances and
rhythms, the vibrations, the earthiness, the abandonment
of inhibition, that might arise from the pounding of feet
to the pulsing of hand drums in the night-hushed room.
Josuf, well known in African dance circles, had visited
the Southwest several times. Now, he was spending a semester
as Visiting Professor of African Dance and Drums at
Arizona State University. He and his videos were familiar
to Rosie. Tonight, his electrifying presence, combined with
a wisdom and even gentleness of presentation, engaged
her psyche from the inception. She became enveloped in
the living, breathing organism of this evening of dance.
The men nodded to each other, looked at Josuf, and
continued on. Josuf occasionally gave them a cue, but one
of the men from Africa kept the beat and served as lead
drummer. They began at one end, rippling toward the other
end of the crescent, until all the drummers were playing.
The drums picked up in speed and sound, resonant and pulsing,
with intertwined rhythms. Occasionally there would be a
change. A student of both piano and dance in college, Rosie
listened for the rhythm and cadence. At first she heard fugal
rhythms, with a few drums beating to the “1, 2, 3 and 4 and,”
then the next group entering on the first group’s “3, 4” with a
“1, 2.” The drummers created a fugue of four parts. Then Rosie
could hear competing rhythms, with one group at a 4/4 count,
but another group with an indiscernible beat. Rosie felt as well
as heard their skill as she absorbed the music’s complexity.10 Josuf stepped forward and back, gesturing all the dancers
to move toward him as he moved one foot behind the other,
then for them to retreat as he danced forward into their midst.
Rosie looked first only at him, then shifted her gaze to the
brown/red/gold/azure skirt of the African-American woman
diagonally to her right. Soon, though, as if drawn by an invisible
magnet, she found herself looking directly at the floor
just in front of her as she began to stomp, slide and pace in
rhythm with Josuf, the musicians, and the multicolored chorus
of women dancers.
There were a few musical numbers from specific regions,
each a few minutes long. Then, after some words from Josuf,
the drummers embarked on a series of cadences that waved,
pounded, and continued to throb. Rosie no longer needed to
look at anyone or anything. She swayed. She stomped. She
felt her center, her core, drawing closer to the earth. She felt
her hair dampening at the nape of her neck, a few rivulets of
perspiration moving down her face and between her breasts.
A sense of freedom flowed from her groin down her legs and
shimmered out through her arms to her fingertips. When the
mood invited her, she shook her shoulders and fanny and
raised her face as if to the sun.
Others swayed in sensual synchronization. Rosie glanced
across the room to see waves of reds, yellows and blues
flowing as one, bodies moving in a chorus. Some women
had taken off blouses and let their breasts move freely. Wide
white-toothed smiles accompanied the movements, as if mere
dance was delivering these women from a place of bondage
to a field of freedom.
Rosie smelled the sweat of the many heated bodies swaying
and stomping, the scent of dirty feet against the woodbeamed
gym floor. Yet the smells mattered little. What mattered
at this moment in time was the beat, the swirling colors,
the heat, the passion, the harmony in numbers, as drummers
and dancers spoke to each other in the language of movement
and sound. She had come here to dance in preparation for
her recital at the end of the semester. It was early December,
cold and dark outside, seemingly unpropitious for anything
close to a vibrant African dance dress rehearsal. She had
come feeling tight, even apprehensive.
Yet here it was, the full experience; public yet intimate,
close yet expanding; hot; gathered yet disseminated. The
sounds she had heard dozens of times before combining
anew to become a vehicle of transport. Rosie let herself follow
the beat, the rhythm, the shushuring of the dancers’ feet
and skirts. She lost track of time and place. As if in a dream,
she saw herself on the earth in a faraway place, maybe at
night, maybe in West Africa, maybe not even of this world.
Her emotions ruled her moves and she went into a trance,
with her conscious mind not awake, but her core remaining
in touch with the ground, the beat, those around her, and
the parameters of place. She felt pure and impure, dirty and
washed, in control of her destiny and unable to change it,
step-sliding and hip-swiveling in what seemed an unending
The drummers wrapped it up in a slick cadence and a
crescendo of all drums in sync. They suddenly stopped. The
auditorium burst into applause, every member of the group
clapping and laughing. Rosie awoke. She was drenched in
sweat. But the gaunt old drummer was there, again appearing
to look her way. What was it that lured her, yet so quickly destroyed
the freedom she had felt just moment before? A shiver
racked her body. An old anxiety returned, cellular memory
triggered by the swarthy stranger in the drum circle.
Josuf was saying kind, professorial and complimentary
things to the entire class of performers —amateur, student and
professional alike. He spoke about some occasions coming
together in a special communion. He said he had felt it here
tonight, here in this off-the-main-road Coconino County Community
College gym. He mentioned a few women in specific
outfits (not knowing people by name). Rosie’s sienna, teal and
ochre skirt was among those praised. She, in fact, did stand
out for excellence. She was good at this dance, because she
so desperately needed it. She danced, she knew, to escape
memories from the past, from the room, from despair. Like12 a lion in the savannah, the dance promised a momentary
freedom from the uncertainty of never knowing when the
feelings, the persistent fear, would return and overwhelm
None of this internal whirlwind showed to the outside
world in the face of the twenty-four-year-old woman with
curly mahogany hair, wrapped in a vibrant Nigerian skirt.
At the moment that the applause swelled for Josuf, the
drummers and the dancers, she knew she would go to the
family farm in the mountains.