Thursday, September 25, 2008

LOCAL ARTS: Incubator Of Rhythm

(previously published here at

There's nothing like a good African dance class to soak your shirt in sweat, blister your feet and make you wish you could shake your booty like a professional.

Inhaling the rhythmic drum beats helps, though, as does the sight of dreads flying, wrap skirts flapping and dancers circling their arms and pumping their chests. This is exactly what you'll find Wednesday nights at the Community Education Center in University City, where each 90-minute class requires $12 and all of your energy.

Djian Tie, an Ivory Coast native, teaches the Wednesday class, where live drummers tempt dancers to try faster, funkier moves. Mixed-level African dance classes are also offered by Cachet Ivey on Monday night and Maurice Edwards on Saturday afternoon.

Only a handful of venues offer African dance classes in the city and CEC is definitely the hub.

"We've been here longer than anyone in the city," Theresa Shockley, director of CEC, a nonprofit that has been around since 1984, said. "And we're more artist-friendly. CEC is kind of an incubator, supporting artists throughout their career and giving them a place to work."

Founded 24 years ago, CEC grew out of a public-school education facility. Today, the brick building in West Philly is a refuge for emerging artists, as a forum not only for dance - African, Latin and line dance - but also theater, music, martial arts and other forms of artistic expression.

Another part of what makes CEC unique is that it partners with teachers instead of paying them as would a studio. And while the center has resident dance companies, like Group Motion and Kumquat Dance Center, the companies do not overpower the overall structure.

"Artists are always trying to get space to teach and present their work," Ms. Shockley said. "We provide space for them to develop their work and present it."

CEC's New Edge resident artist program, for example, specifically caters to new choreographers and theater artists. Each year, three choreographers and two theater artists are granted a stipend, 100 rehearsal hours and a venue to showcase their final product.

Shavon Norris and Meredith Rainey, who were chosen this year from over 30 choreographer applicants, will start their residencies this spring.

Influenced by her Baptist upbringing, Ms. Norris's teaching style is based on "the African-American tradition of testifying" and storytelling. The dancers teach each other the movements they create, which allows for an "exchange of histories" and "insight into what the others' experience is," Ms. Norris said.

After interviewing potential dancers, Ms. Norris decides whom to cast in her pieces by observing their reactions to the taped interviews. For this project, she asked three men to perform improvisational dance based on what they remembered hearing in their youth.

"I'm not interested in putting work in people, but rather, pulling work out of them," Ms. Norris said.

Mr. Rainey, who is trained in classical ballet, takes "classical vocabulary" and adds "background" to make his pieces more than merely technical. He likes to train "dancers who don't have a voice yet and make them have a voice."

The theme of his project is voyeurism, stemming partly out of his TV addiction and partly out of his own "fear of getting older and not being good enough."

"Why am I so addicted to looking at someone else's life?" he asked rhetorically. The conceived focus of his project has ranged from "power" to "coveting someone else's life" and is now "about going out there and getting a life."

Of the resident artist program at CEC, Ms. Norris said, "CEC supports artists in any stage of your career."

Mr. Rainey agreed, noting that few dance residencies are offered in the city and only CEC allows choreographers to produce shows upon its completion.

Having such an outlet and bond between the city and the creative juices of its residents is key to the CEC's mission.

"Our goal is to connect artists and [the] community," explained Ms. Shockley.

The dance floor on Wednesday night was pulsing as rows of dancers of various backgrounds, shapes and experience practiced the newly learned routine, competed in a freestyle contest to outdo the drumbeats, and then bowed in thanks to the drummers.

As dancers streamed out, some rubbing their feet, the woman collecting the money at the door advised a first-timer, "If you get a pedicure make sure they don't scrape off the calluses. Then, your feet will be too soft."

Visit for a list of classes.

Erin Maguire can be reached at Heather Chin can be reached at

©The Evening Bulletin 2008

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