As the sign read at Layla’s Drum & Dance in Valley Stream, “Life + Dance = Health & Happiness.” And indeed something more than dance instruction seemed to be going on at the small storefront studio one recent Sunday. Attendees drifted in and out of the class and djembe drummers alternated dancing, drumming and chatting. Children ran around, underscoring the casual atmosphere. Kids of all ages are welcome to attend classes with their family members, explained owner Anayo Michel while her daughter and studio namesake Layla played nearby.
“In Guinea or Nigeria, it’s not like, okay, here’s a class for five- to seven-year-olds only. It’s communal and everyone dances together,” said Anayo, whose Nigerian mother taught her West African dancing. Public relations professional by day, dance teacher by night, she led the all-female Sunday class in some warm-up moves before dance teacher Mouminatou Camara took over. Even though the vibe was laid-back, the dance chops on display were serious. Mouminatou is a dancer from Guinea and a veteran performer with the famous Les Ballet Africains dance troupe. She is also a choreographer and shares her knowledge of the traditional dances with Americans through workshops and in dance schools in New York City. Anayo wanted to bring that New York City-style dance school to Nassau County when she saw that those interested in African dance had to trek into Manhattan to take a class. Judging by the attendees at Layla’s, interest in African dancing spans ages and ethnicities.
Mouminatou, clad in a traditional long skirt, slowly demonstrated half a dozen basic moves that the 10 students copied; fine tuning the feet before slowly adding more elaborate arm movements to embellish the steps. All the moves were simple— a few steps to the side and back, a hip sway, a shuffle—but when Mouminatou and the other experienced dancers put a little oomph into them, the energy of the dance style shone through and the individuality each dancer brought to the simple movements was evident. “Left, right, left, right,” Mouminatou instructed with each footfall. “Left, right, no, no, no! Like this!”
Well… maybe the moves weren’t that simple. But overall, West African dance is a loose, less structured style. “It’s a freestyle movement,” said Anayo, who joined the ranks of dancers midway through the class. “It’s about opening your spirit.”
The 90-minute long class was technically open to all experience levels. Beginners to more advanced students are always welcome at Layla’s, Anayo said, and the moves were easy to grasp with a little practice. The cardinal rule of “don’t overthink it” was key and the lack of mirrors in the studio helped keep self-consciousness or nervousness at bay. After students mastered the basic moves, they crossed the room in pairs, each time performing one of the moves to the pulsating rhythm of the djembe drums.
Overheard: “I didn’t come to dance, I was just going to watch, but those drums will get you every time.”
In traditional djembe dancing, specific rhythms correspond with distinct moves, but the interaction is more dialogue than prescription. Dancers volley with drummers and vice versa.
There is a group dynamic that is different from Western partner or solo dancing. Everyone is in the dance together, even as individuals break out of the pack to shine (or show-off ), inciting the drummers to go faster and keep up with the lightning-fast feet of more advanced dancers. But there’s a place for even the beginners and Anayo said some newbies choose to dance across the floor with the kids.
The movements, some including jumping, were vigorous enough to get hearts pumping and bodies warm but the class wasn’t structured as formal exercise. “Whether you come here to get a workout or not, you’re going to get one,” Anayo laughed. “I don’t think of it as exercise but it is. Everyone asks me what I do [to work out] and I say ‘I’m just lucky, I dance.’”
Some regulars wore long, brightly patterned skirts and everyone danced in socks.
The quintet of djembe drummers included a rarity: A female drummer. Khadijah Harper is a trailblazer for women interested in djembe drumming, long a maleonly instrument. Khadijah, who jumped out from behind the drums to show off her dancing skills, also plans to teach an upcoming drum and dance workshop at Layla’s. “There is something healing about the beat of the drums,” she said. And it could be felt when the five-person drum team created a full wall of sound that seemed more vibrant and powerful than expected from a single instrument.
Whether it’s the sound of the drums or the experience of dancing in a group, a communal bliss was undeniable. First-timers moved confidently across the floor along with the pros. The no-judgment vibe encouraged everyone, young and old, to go with the flow. Even the male djembe drummers ventured out from behind the drums by the end to put their own idiosyncratic
spin on the moves. Women of all shapes and sizes were equally sweaty and smiling by the end. They may have danced the steps a little differently, but everyone shared in the same positivity and energy. Kind of like the dance itself.