African dream: How Congolese and West African dance came to Utah
If you go down to the Rose Wagner late on a Saturday morning, you can feel the vibration of African drums in the soles of your feet as soon as you walk through the door. Inside the studio where the African dance class meets, drummers are pounding out intersecting rhythms while pulsing dancers leap and crouch with grounded energy and wild limbs. Your feet are literally itching to take a place in the rows of dancers and let loose.
But it’s not as easy as just moving with the drumbeats. There’s a method and technique in the dancing that’s rooted in African traditions and cultures. The movement feels ancient and elemental and deeply human.
This kind of dancing seems like an exotic thing to find in Salt Lake City, but the African dance class has been meeting practically every Saturday morning since it was founded in 1996 by Kim Strunk and Jenni Indresano. Neither woman is originally Congolese or West African. They learned to dance from influential teachers like Mabiba Baegne and Malonga Casquelourd. The original drum community was started by Jeff Wax and by Fred Simpson, who now leads the African Drum Ensemble at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in New Mexico. The dance community they founded is so strong that it’s still vibrant after the founders moved on.
Strunk, who danced with RDT from 1981-1992, went on to study dance at the University of Utah. Her MFA Thesis is on “Finding a Voice as a Contemporary Dance Artist Through the Investigation of the African Aesthetic in Art and Motion.” In the thesis she writes about exploring “cross-culturization” as cultures merge and shift to form new aesthetics. She describes how she began to study African influences on modern dance and became more and more infatuated with the original African dance forms. Recognizing that she was coming to African dance as a cultural outsider, Strunk wrote,
“Initially, I was somewhat uncomfortable teaching African-based classes. My sensitivity towards issues of cultural appropriation and identity led me to question whether it was appropriate for me to teach a cultural dance form other than my own. Despite my concerns, I took on the challenge trusting that my passion and respect for African dance and culture could overcome sensitive issues.”
When she wrote the thesis, Strunk had never been to Africa, but nonetheless her teachers had confidence in her abilities. She describes a conversation with a skeptical student who asked Strunk if she had been to Africa.
“I told the student, ‘no, I had not,’ and [Fred] Simpson replied that, yes, I had; one night as I was sleeping I made a trip, had supper with the people and came home.”
More than 20 years later the truth of this story has become evident. Maybe Strunk had never been to Africa, but thanks to her dream trip, Africa came to Utah. The African dance community centered at the RDT Community School has made it worthwhile for teachers to come to Salt Lake City. So Utahns have had opportunities to study dance and drumming with teachers from Africa they might never have met and to make cultural connections they might never have made.
These days Rosie Banchero, artistic director of WOFA Afro Fusion Dance, is teaching African dance at RDT Community School. WOFA is performing for RDT’s Ring Around the Rose children’s series on Saturday, February 8, so take the kids to experience some hands-on African drumming and dancing. Perhaps one night they’ll dream of Africa.
Amy Brunvand is a published poet, librarian for the University of Utah’s Office of Sustainability and a longtime CATALYST contributor. We are so grateful for Amy.