By DENENE MILLNER
Let me just go ahead and put this on out there: I can’t dance.
I mean, if you put on, say, Stevie Wonder’s “As,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “September,” maybe some Jay-Z or a little old school hip hop, I can drop it like it’s on fire. But when it comes to organized routines—choreographed dances that require coordinated movement, especially with others—I’m about as graceful as an elephant in a Conga line. It’s. Not. Pretty.
So when my sister-in-law/BFF Angelou invited me to a local African dance class, you can imagine how quick I was to run through my mental calendar to come up with a gang of reasons why I just didn’t have any time over the next year to make it there. But Ang is really persuasive. And she offered to drive. And give me a glass of Reisling when class was over.
Well, have drink? Will travel.
Our instructor, Sauda, promised to be gentle. And she was. While the drummers beat an incredible rhythm, she led us through a series of warm-ups and then slowly introduced us to a series of age-old traditional West African dances—a bit of Manjani, a little Lamba, some Kuku. I’ll tell you this much: exercise gurus Billy Blanks, Donna Richardson, and Richard Simmons ain’t got nuthin’ on Sauda, you hear me? Every pound of the drum required a different movement from a different body part—every inch of me was bending and stretching and bowing and gyrating and kicking and leaping in ways I never thought possible. I had quite the time trying to keep up, too; when Sauda said go left, I went right—by the time I got to the bend, everyone else was soaring through the air.
It was ugly, I tell you.
But then the cool down came, and Sauda slowed down and the drummers, Sekou and Jerome, hit a smoothed-out beat, and suddenly, I could breathe again (kinda). And then Sauda instructed each of us to open our arms wide and slowly wrap them around ourselves while we swayed to the drums. “This,” she said, “is a hug from me to you, from you to me, from we to we—positive energy filled with love and light.” And then, mid-hug, she encouraged us to pat ourselves on the back, “because if no one else does, at least you can,” she added. “That hug, those pats, are always available to you. Use them to help yourself remember just how valuable and beautiful and wonderful you are.”
And right there, in that moment, with my own arms holding me tight, in a room-full of fellow dancers, each of them supportive, interesting, smart, fun, committed moms and wives, I knew that no matter how wack my dance skills, that class was where I wanted—needed—to be. Each of us need it like we need air. I was getting in some (much-needed!) exercise and learning the beauty of a continent’s cultural expression, and, most importantly, getting in much-deserved me-time—the incredibly freeing feeling that comes when no one is asking you to do stuff, or focus on them, or put aside your needs to lead the team. That time when it’s all about y-o-u and y-o-u alone.
I’ve been taking that class for almost a year, now—Tuesdays and Fridays are my dance nights, and everybody in the house is on notice that it’s just not a good idea to try to book Mommy’s schedule between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. when I’m supposed to be in class. Oh, you can try. But you might just get your little feelings hurt.
Let me make it to class, though—make it to my hug—and it’s virtually guaranteed that I’ll spread the love.
Note: Is that me in the picture? Nope. I'm nowhere near as graceful or beautiful when I dance. That stunning photo was taken by an incredible photographer, Victor Holt, whom I discovered while searching for a picture to illustrate this post.