The rhythm of the drum drove the spirit of the motion, turning loose far more than expression through performance.

Dance is about life. Properly understood, it is said, one can actually visualize a dancer’s journey by the movement of steps.

A couple of dozen Central Washington University students and staff had a chance to shape their story through the rhythm of the spirit with the assistance of a man whose ancestry can be traced to its origins in West Africa.

Western Oregon University director of dance Darryl Thomas has toured the world as a dancer and artistic collaborator in the world-renowned Pilbolus Dance Theatre, winning an Emmy for his 1996 Kennedy Center performance of the Pilbolus work “Untitled.”

As he counted out the steps and the group followed along in slow-motion, adjusting to the cadence of his voice, as it began to take shape. But it wasn’t until he turned on the sound system and the drum exploded through the speakers into the room did the dance come to life.

“In West Africa, the drum and the body are the same. They consider the body to be an instrument. So the body plays all these different rhythms much like any other instrument,” said Thomas, who is a performer with Kankouran West African Dance Company based in Washington, D.C., and studied Senegalese dance and drumming.

“Dance is a spiritual thing, it really is. For me, the idea of dancing is about life. It’s about moving to the things we see around us. In Africa, they abstracted movements from the things they would do during the day. Here in urban settings, you see improvisation in street dance where people are developing their own style and their own thing.”

The dance studio at Nicholson Pavilion took on an African vibe as dance students mimicked the master, whose choreography has been featured in repertory of dance companies from Singapore to Mexico City, Pusan, South Korea, Bangkok to Thailand and other places around the globe. But in the end, it was about freedom of expression and bringing the bounce.

CWU dance student Madison Stauffer of Everett didn’t take long to turn her spirit free in the tribal rhythms of the sound system.

“The style we’re learning today is definitely African. I’ve been jazz dancing for quite awhile and I can definitely tell where jazz comes from based on the African movements,” she said. “Physically, when he would count it out, I wanted to do it fundamental as possible.

“But when the music comes on, it’s the performance aspect of my life. I know how to turn it on. So this is all about having fun and having a good time learning something new. Even though it’s a lot different that what I’m used to, the steps come natural to me. Once the music comes on, I don’t think about anything. I just move.”

When they were done chasing into the rhythm of the soul through the movement of dance, they tapped into the spirit of the drum, forming a drum circle. The circle, of course, represents no beginning, no end, just a connection to the heartbeat and the origins of sound.

“I brought different drums and they have different parts of the rhythm that they play,” Thomas said. “We’ll experiment with the djembe (rope-tuned, skin-covered goblet drum). I also brought some juju’s (traditional Yoruba percussion).

“We’ll have three different parts for the djembe with the juju’s playing, so there’s five or six different rhythms playing all together. It’s like an orchestra with different parts to one sound.”

For two days, children of the 21st century traced the rhythm of the heart and the spirit of the dance back to its West African origins, adding something new into the dance steps of their life.

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