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Out of Africa

September 22, 1996|Shonda Buchanan

By the fourth repetition of leg lifts, the strain appears on several of the dancers' faces. They have already stretched and crunched stomach muscles, grimacing in front of the mirrors that line a wall. And now the thighs. Enough, their eyes roll. One woman pretends to shake the floor's dust from her hands. Another pauses to tighten her scarf.

"Hello, everybody," says Keti Terry, the head instructor at the West African dance class at the Dance Collective in Leimert Park. "The day is beautiful." Keti's slender hips are wrapped in a royal blue tie-dyed lappa as she saunters around the room this Sunday morning. "I hope ya'll not tired. Up partying late last night, hmmmm?" An elegant cream linen shirt clings to her slight 5-foot-6 frame. She smiles, and by the self-confident smirk, you can tell Keti is a betting woman. Late night or not, they will dance.

A tiny, barely ventilated space, the Dance Collective studio is packed with 30 or more men, women and children dressed in loose-fitting clothes in elaborate, bright colors. Because the room is cramped, they can barely duplicate Keti's moves without brushing hands or shoulders.

For the past three years, Keti has taught West African dance at the collective. For her students and for the knot of observers always gathered at the front door, the class has become a Sunday ritual--part church, part excruciating workout. "If you miss Sunday service, you can always come here and receive communion," says 27-year-old Danika Middleton, who is five months' pregnant and comes every week. "Even the little boys drumming, they want to be connected."

"I think people come because it's a high-energy class," Keti says. "But I do West African dance because my love is for the culture." She began her career 21 years ago, studying tap, ballet and jazz. But once her brother, a drummer, introduced her to West African rhythm, styles and techniques, other forms of dance paled in comparison. "Once I started dancing West African dance," she says, "I realized that this was the original source of all the others. This is where I needed to stay." Keti has since studied with master dancers in Gambia and Dakar.

The yellow, red and green benches the drummers sit on are stationed near the front door, where a crowd inevitably gathers, blocking the flow of fresh air. The drummers coax out Sunu, Mandjani, Ecoun Coun rhythms, or Woloso Doun, Keti's favorite dance. "It is a freedom dance," she says. "The Joun Doun, or slow movements, depict slaves being showcased, and Woloso Doun, the faster pace, shows the slaves breaking free."

As the hour passes and the rhythm escalates, Keti's scarf falls to the floor. She kicks higher than anyone, arms swirling. Protectively holding her stomach, Danika imitates the steps perfectly. Four male dancers, the only men, move with rigid grace, full of solid foot stomps and wide-armed arrogance. A line of little girls proceeds stiffly toward the drummer, giggling. One mahogany-skinned 3-year-old forgets to move out of the way for the next wave of dancers. A woman quickly pulls the child back into the line. Keti stops the class. "We have to watch our little ones," she reprimands. "If you see a straggler, show her or him where to go." Murmuring assent, class starts up again. The drummers break back into a furious beat.

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