Most dance and exercise classes move to some sort of soundtrack. Cynthia Neeley's African dance class boasts its own musicians.
Live drums set the rhythm for the weekly gathering at Ashland Community Center, which resonates with tribal-inspired sounds intensified by dozens of bare feet on the burnished wood floor. Dancers' hands clap, heels stomp, arms wave, elbows jab, knees lunge, hips sway and torsos gyrate through an hour and a half of full-body activity.
"This is your chance to get it all out," squeals Neeley, hopping up and down.
Neeley, 34, started the class a year ago to release her own pent-up energy. Although she's tried other types of dance — namely salsa and belly dance — the Talent resident brought her love of African-style dance from Flagstaff, Ariz. When she arrived in Ashland five years ago, she found a small community of African-inspired drummers and dancers, all of whom have since moved save Neeley.
"I had to dance," she says.
Drawing on lessons from African teachers and experience with a performance troupe in Flagstaff, Neeley shares some commonplace West African dances, most from Guinea and Mali, set to the region's traditional polyrhythmic drumming. Steps are executed in lines, according to the typical African style, and practiced for an entire month.
"The rhythms are really complex — they've been around for thousands of years," says Neeley.
"The live drumming is one of the assets that keeps me going," says Annie Walsh, 31, who also participates in weekly folk dances in Ashland. "People connect to different types of music and different types of dance," she says.
Far from the "free dance" popular in Ashland with its anything-goes ambiance, African dance steps all have names and occasions for performance, usually celebrations or initiations. Neeley starts classes with warm-ups and stretching, establishes the context for the dance and demonstrates steps with her own metaphoric names: Gumby, church, sassy, skippy, sprinkler.
Practiced dancers move fluidly though the series; newcomers imitate Neeley in staccato bursts. While steps are fast-paced, says Neeley, dancers can determine their own levels of athleticism — how high they jump, how low they squat or whether they add additional kicks, flicks of the wrist or other bodily flourishes.
"There's always modifications that can be made."
Regular free dancer but first-time African dancer Megan O'Melia judged the pace challenging and did some moves at half-speed. But she says she loved the unique format and rhythm.
"Every move was on the beat," says the 28-year-old Ashland resident. "I'd say it's a pretty good workout."
"It's about an hour and a half of constant movement," she says. "It's like a fun way to work out."
The class, adds O'Melia, also perpetuates being part of an encouraging and welcoming group. Most participants, says Neeley, are women in their 20s and 30s, but the class has broad appeal, from older children to women in their 60s, from men to pregnant women.
"That's one of the things I love about it," says Neeley. "In the village, it would be the whole community."
And in the village, notes O'Melia, the moves would perhaps praise God, mimic sowing grain or somehow relate to other aspects of daily life, which appeals to her. Through dancing, says Walsh, she is "connecting" to something that she doesn't reach on her own. Neeley describes the experience as "grounding."
"(For) a lot of African moves, you are low," she tells the class, demonstrating a deep knee bend and slightly arched lower back.
Dancers — eight women and one man — follow Neeley's lead through the steps, advancing in groups of three toward the low stage at the back of the community center. When dancers reach the stage, the drummers add a few extra beats to the bar, indicating a change. In response, dancers turn and walk, skip or jog to the other end of the room behind the next lines of participants practicing their footwork in place and bestowing the occasional high-five.
"I think the whole group is encouraging," says Walsh, who has been attending the classes for a few months after hearing about them from friends for much longer.
"It's definitely inspired me," she says, adding that she plans to take a drumming class and looks forward to Neeley bringing in some guest instructors.
Neeley intends to teach a mask dance from the coastal region of Guinea in October, although there will be no classes Oct. 24 or 31. November's dance will be "sunu," which emphasizes femininity and grace and often is performed at weddings in both Mali and Guinea, says Neeley. November classes are planned for the 7, 14 and 21.