Ancestral Rhythms: How West African Dance Taught Me to Live in the Moment

by Bee Quammie

I’ve almost always been scatterbrained. As a child, I thought that multi-tasking and thinking two steps ahead at all times were the keys to success. That habit was never shaken as an adult. I can present a calm exterior, but that shell casing generally encapsulates a mental and emotional thunderstorm - clouds of ideas, lightening bolt plans, and showers of worries at any given moment.

Various forms of art have also helped me to quiet that internal storm while embracing clarity and mindfulness. When I look at the multitude of open tabs on my laptop and get overwhelmed because they’re ALL necessary, I put that sucker to sleep and indulge in a well-written book to cleanse my mental palate. When the clutter of my physical space starts to mirror the clutter of my mental space, music helps me to focus and clean up both aspects of life.

Moving my body with dance gives me a different kind of stress release and clarity. I’ve studied all kinds of dance - from ballet to jazz to Afro-Cuban - and all of my instruction has been very methodological:
  1. Learn the steps. 
  2. Practice and perfect the steps. 
  3. Take a four-count or an eight-count and be sure to switch moves at the appropriate time. 
  4. Rinse and repeat. 
Even in dance, I was literally thinking two steps ahead, multitasking to make sure my mind was ready for the next moves my body had to do, and counting along to ensure I hit each one at the right time.

When I stepped into my first West African dance class, I was ready for more of the same. Then all my expectations shattered.

The first thing the instructor told the class was “Everything in this room is a conversation between the dancer and the drummer. The most important thing here is that you need to be a good listener.” I quickly learned that gone were the days of counting to eight and switching from a kick ball change to a pivot turn. I experienced a brand new level of mindfulness.

We learned moves from the seductive Yankadi and energetic Macru dances of the Sousous people of Guinea, and I felt a spark in the depths of my blood memory. These weren’t moves I had done before, but my waist, hips, arms and feet seemed to instinctively find their proper places as I danced. After being taught a few moves, the instructor told us it was time to put what we had learned into a sequence. There was no counting to four or eight. Instead, we took our cue on when to start, change moves, or stop based on the drumming circle that accompanied us. During the drumming rhythms, one of the three drummers would hit a “break,” a distinct change in the beat that was a signal for us to begin dancing. We would keep doing that move until we heard another break, then we would switch to our next move. Since the timing of the breaks were entirely up to the drummer, we had no choice but to focus on the move we were doing in the moment because we couldn’t predict when we’d be doing the next. Eventually, we realized that our role wasn’t just to flawlessly execute our moves, but to ensure that we paid attention to the conversation our drummers were having with us.

After class I sat in my car, sweaty, sore, and rejuvenated. I had a revelation. For the first time in a long time, I practiced mindfulness. I stayed in the moment without deviating to the future. I took note of how my body moved and felt in the present without worrying about what it was supposed to do next. The drums forced me to focus solely on what they were saying in the particular moment, and reminded me that my dancing was only half of the artistic expression. I was mindful, grounded, and present, and my brain didn’t feel as tired as it usually does.

The Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto, Ontario defines mindfulness as “a non-judgmental way of paying attention in the present moment, and leads to increased personal awareness and clarity.” The Centre has created a special Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy program aimed at helping those coping with anxiety and depression, but mindfulness is something that has a wide array of benefits.

From practicing meditation to simply taking a few moments to stop, breathe, and bring your thoughts back to the here and now, mindfulness can do amazing things for your overall health and wellbeing. Research shows that just a few benefits of practicing mindfulness include reducing stress, increasing focus, and decreasing emotional reactivity. Members of the Marine Corps and other branches of the U.S. military have also felt power of mindfulness. Psychology Today published a helpful article with easy ways to fit mindfulness into your day. It doesn’t take as much effort as you may think, but these small actions will yield some big results.

I’m gradually working towards being able to successfully meditate on a regular basis. For now, I get a regular reminder to be mindful with each dance class I attend. Every week, I have the chance to reset my brain - to leave yesterday in the past, to leave the next hour or day or week in the inevitable future. I have to focus on me in the moment. Every week, I’m a part of a conversation with my ancestry, my body, and my drums. And every week I’m proud of the fact that I was fully present for it all.

Photo: Shutterstock

Bee Quammie is a Toronto-based writer and founder of ‘83 To Infinity and The Brown Suga Mama. Recognized by Black Enterprise & the Black Canadians Awards for her digital work, Bee aims to live '83 To Infinity's motto: "It's never too late to learn something new, do something new, or be someone new." Follow her on Twitter at @beequammie.

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