DJOLE African Dance and Drum Company
Djole (jo-lay)
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African dance and drumming

By Samantha Test
Special to The Post and Courier
Thursday, February 19, 2009

Photos from Julia Jaskwhich's Buen Ache Dance Company classes on 89 Warren St. "The movements of African dance are bold and vibrant," Jaskwhich said.
Credit: Christina Bailey
It makes Ida Taylor feel excited and energized. Bob Small gets lost in it. And Julia Jaskwhich becomes joyous and enchanted.

It is African dance and drumming.

"It is a culture; it's a feeling," said Taylor, director of the Djole Dance Company. "The whole body moves to the music. Most movements involve the feet, the head and especially the hands."

Djole, along with Small's dance company, Harambe, and Jaskwhich's Buen Ache, all dance primarily in the West African style. It's the movements and the culture, not the style, that are more important.

"African dance is a traditional dance of African communities that is used for a number of purposes, such as communicating with religious deities, celebrating events and telling stories of events, people and history," Small explained.

Jaskwhich agreed.

"The movements of African dance are bold and vibrant. They can be flirtatious, such as in the Guinean dance 'Yankadi,' which is a dance where young people meet one another and find marriage partners. Or they can be fierce, like the 'strong man' dance, 'Dundunba,' also from Guinea."

In Charleston, the roots of African dance and drumming run as deep as the history. Many slaves from West Africa who ended up in North America entered the country through one of the time's biggest and busiest ports: this town. The movements and stories that survived the trans-Atlantic trip are what form modern styles. Preserving the history and culture are important to dancers and drummers today.

"African dance is one of the oldest forms of organized dance in the world, yet all cultures use dance to tell their stories, from the Native Americans to the Celtic," Small said. "Any differences are cultural to the particular group."

African dance and drumming
Credit: Christina Bailey
While almost all groups in Charleston are West African in style, one has strayed into a slightly different cultural beat, albeit still historical.

Buen Ache incorporates both West African and Latin movement and rhythms. This combination commonly is referred to as "Afro-Cuban."

"Our movement has a sensual fluidity that comes from its Latin side, and a resonating pulse that stems from its African roots," Jaskwhich said. "We use big, bright, traditional skirts that swirl and taunt the audience with their flirtatious movement. There is a lot of waist and hip movement in our style, and the men have a lot of fancy footwork."

While Buen Ache may move to its own drummer, the themes and messages of the dance remain: respect and support an important culture.

"The beauty of the dance and the joy it brings to us when we create new and unique choreogra-phies expresses themes and stories that touch our hearts," Jaskwhich said. "We have a dance about overcoming racism and another that depicts the fighting spirit of enslaved peoples in the new world."

Whichever story a dance troupe is telling, though, it is the drum that is the backbone of the dance.

Small explained that African dance and drumming is very disciplined. "It is based on polyrhythms," he said. "That is two different rhythms being played at the same time to create one song. Timing is important, as is repetition. (There are) slow, methodical rhythms to fast-paced and high steps. Various types of drums play varied roles in the song."

But the drum plays more than just a rhythmic role. "The drums add life to the dance," Taylor said.

Small agreed. "The music is electrifying. The drums are the heartbeat, like the hand claps and foot stomps are in the church. The drums give the dancers the canvas to paint their picture of dance and tell the story."

He continued, "I personally am energized by both the dance and the drumming. I can get lost in the music, losing any sense of time and being transported closer to my African roots."

He is not alone in his sentiments. The Charleston African dance and drum scene is one that was built, and thrives today, on its roots.

Small explained that in the late '70s African dancers and drummers, such as Fanta Ada, Cheryl West, Ada Troutman and several others, migrated from New York, where African dance was more popular, to the Lowcountry, partly because of the larger number of African-Americans who lived here. "When they moved to Charleston, the main venues for showcasing the dance were events like Kwanzaa and Black History Month, etc.," Small said. "It served as a connection for African-Americans with our African roots. Then from one group, it has evolved into a number of groups in Charleston, Mount Pleasant, James Island, North Charleston, Summerville, Beaufort and other communities."

According to Small, African dance has sustained itself and expanded as African-Americans have grown to accept their cultural roots as something to be proud of rather than try to suppress.

"In the 1970s, it was exclusively black dancers and drummers performing African dance," he said. "Today, people of many ethnic backgrounds have embraced the movements and developed an appreciation for the culture."

This immersion of various groups into African dancing and drumming, whether ethnic, or any other demographic inclination, has influenced the art itself as well.

"(African dancing and drumming) continues to evolve," Small said. "With the interest from other ethnic groups, it has grown to interact with the broader community. Drum circles and dance groups here today participate in the African dance experience not just for cultural purposes, but for fun and exercise."

Perhaps this is why African dance and drumming has not only continued to grow in popularity and strength, but will continue to echo throughout the future of the Lowcountry. Every person and every group bring their own individuality to the dance. The dance, in turn, becomes a celebration of roots.

"In African dance, the beauty of the dance comes from the individuality of each dancer and his or her movement," Jaskwhich said. "What makes the dance beautiful is each dancer's personal style and flair, his or her personal interpretation of the music. Every body shape is different, every person's body moves differently and everyone has their own style. The beauty comes from the diversity."