A joyful rhythm


Liz Fowler is building a community around West African dance and drumming
Words and photos by Charlie Weinmann 

It’s late on a Thursday evening in The Dance Hall in Kittery, Maine, and the quick beat of hands on tight drum skins bounces off the floor and walls of the performance space. On one side of the room is a group of seven drummers, tapping and pounding out a rhythm. On the other side, facing the drummers, is a group of eight dancers arranged in a sort of pyramid formation. At the pyramid’s head is Liz Fowler, her sinuous movements synchronized with the booming beat of the drums. As the rhythms change, the dancers change formation, bending and stretching and reaching, no longer focused on Fowler but instead immersed in the music as the drummers furiously tap out a rhythm that winds its way from person to person, connecting them together.

“It’s one of the reasons I love the community of West African drum and dance that we’ve been building … seeing joy in people’s faces; whether they’re passing by outside of The Dance Hall, or in the class, or peeking in the door,” Fowler said. “It’s exercise, community, music, cultural enrichment, joy, and a fantastic way to let go of all the day’s stress all wrapped up in one package.”

Fowler has been teaching West African dance at The Dance Hall since 2011. In the last four years, Fowler and Namory Keita, who teaches West African drumming, have helped foster a community around the two arts. Every Thursday,  a group of about 30 dedicated dancers and drummers gather in Kittery to learn the rhythms, choreography, history, and traditions behind West African drumming and dance.

“I don’t know if I can say I’m creating it, but it’s happening, and I’m a part of it,” Fowler says of the growing West African dance movement. “I love being a part of it. It seems like more and more people are talking about West African dance and drumming … and that makes me really happy.”

STAGE_drums3Liz Fowler, center, leads a West African dance class at The Dance Hall.

West African dance and drumming has its own unspoken language. Dancers and drummers work in synch. Several drummers play an upbeat patter, while a lead djembe drummer embellishes over the beat, suggesting step changes for the dancers, who respond in kind. The two groups communicate through vibration, emotion, and instinct, responding to each others’ energy to create a distinct harmony.

Fowler has been studying West African dance for some two decades. Her fascination with the art form began during her third year at Connecticut College, where she took a class with Chuck Davis, one of the leading African dance teachers and choreographers in the country. She fell in love with the rhythms and the movement.

“(It) was a little more freeing for me. I still can’t articulate what all the pieces are that connect with me, I just know that they do,” she said.

The following summer, she traveled to the American Dance Festival in North Carolina, where she took another class with Davis.

“We danced outside, we danced in our bare feet. … There was just this joy,” Fowler said. “I do think there is something with the drumming, and this real connection that a lot of us have to percussion that we don’t even know why. … Is it our heartbeats? I don’t know.”

“By the end of dancing and listening to the drummers for an hour and a half, I always feel instilled with a sense of renewal and hope.”
— dance student Meaghan Dunn

That summer, she and other students performed in a North Carolina men’s prison. She felt uneasy going into the prison, she said, but soon realized what dance could do for even the hardest of personalities.

“They were rude and cat-calling, and it was kind of a scary experience,” Fowler said. “But there was a transformation that happened with them and with us during the couple hours or so that we were there. That was another ‘ah-ha’ moment. Here’s music and dance doing something powerful with people.”That summer, she and other students performed in a North Carolina men’s prison. She felt uneasy going into the prison, she said, but soon realized what dance could do for even the hardest of personalities.

Fowler pursued her passion for dance far and wide. She traveled to Guinea for the first time to study dance in 2007 and returned three more times in the next two years.

“I spent a lot of money,” Fowler said. “Some people save for down payments for their houses; I went to West Africa four times.” Those years of study helped give her the “confidence, and the credibility” to start teaching when she returned to the Seacoast.

Starting in 2008, she taught classes at dance studios in Kittery, Dover, and Epping, before settling at The Dance Hall in 2011. Drika Overton, The Dance Hall’s director, said that West African drum and dance rhythms are part of the foundation of jazz and dance and that Fowler’s classes, and the musicians and dancers she brings to the venue, are “integral.”

STAGE_drums2Namory Keita (center, standing) leads a West African drumming class at The Dance Hall.

Fowler regularly invites guest artists in for special performances and classes. It’s an opportunity for students to learn from artists from Africa and around the world; for Fowler, these guests help keep her own practice fresh.

“I think it helps everyone, and it gives me the fusion that I need,” she said. “I can keep learning. One of the pieces too — and really important for teachers of all kinds — is for us to be learners too, and remember what it’s like to be in that awkward ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ place. It’s so good to be there.”

Meaghan Dunn is one of Fowler’s regular students. She said the class has become part of her weekly routine — it keeps her mind fresh and her body active.

“I often walk into dance class on Thursday evenings weighed down by the stress and anxieties that life delivers,” Dunn said. “However, by the end of dancing and listening to the drummers for an hour and a half, I always feel instilled with a sense of renewal and hope. … It is like a church service, with the extra benefit of keeping you healthy and toned.”

For Fowler, seeing that joy and watching that transformation in her students is its own reward.

“Once the drumming starts, once they are moving, there is just this transformation,” Fowler said. “I can see the joy in people’s faces when they really connect with what they are doing, and with what the drummers are playing. And that is pretty fantastic.”

West African dance and drum classes are held each Thursday at The Dance Hall, 7 Walker St., Kittery, Maine. Drum classes are from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and are $10 per class; dance classes are from 6:30 to 8 p.m. and are $12 per class. Visit thekitterydancehall.org.