Dance outdoors: Afro Beats and Guinea-style West African dance classes in Portland

Dancing feels good.

That assertion is based on anecdotal evidence: Couples energetically kicking up their heels on a wedding reception dance floor or the blissed-out grin of a solitary dancer rocking out to whatever tunes are playing through her headphones.

Or heck, my own mother’s penchant for bopping along to the overhead music at the grocery store while she pushes her cart through the produce department.

That’s because dancing is inherently fun. It’s celebratory. It’s whole-body engaging. And it’s near impossible to dwell on life’s current calamities while you’re stomping your foot and swinging your arms to the rhythm of a good song.

Veeva Banga leads an Afro Beats class on the Eastern Prom in Portland. Shannon Bryan photo

“Dancing is an expression, a freeing experience,” said Veeva Banga, a dance teacher based in Portland.

Banga has taught dance at a variety of local studios over the years, and this summer she is teaching Afro Beats classes outside on the Eastern Prom.
Veeva Banga: “I love teaching because I love seeing my moves come to life in other peoples’ bodies.” (Courtesy Veeva Banga)

Like many business owners, she moved her classes outdoors in response to the coronavirus epidemic; the move allows for plenty of space to keep dancing while maintaining plenty of physical distance.

Turns out, dancing in the grass on the Eastern Prom, with Casco Bay as a backdrop, makes the experience even sweeter.

Afro Beats with Veeva Banga

Banga describes Afro Beats as a new dance style that embodies different African moves, hip hop, and jazz.

“It can be technical and sharp or open and free,” she said. “Overall, it’s an amazing style of dance to learn that feels really good in your body.”

Dancers spend two weeks learning choreography for a particular song. Banga demonstrates each move and the class practices together, slowly adding the choreography together piece by piece. With her small stereo planted in the grass nearby, the music floats on the coastal breeze while gulls add in their accompaniment.

Dancers of all levels turn up to learn and move – and whether they nail the choreography straight away or miss a few beats or turns here and there doesn’t matter.

“You’re not only here to learn a dance, but also to have fun,” she said.

Afro Beats on the Eastern Prom. Shannon Bryan photo

“I love teaching because I love seeing my moves come to life in other peoples’ bodies,” Banga said. “Whenever I teach choreography, I don’t expect a student to do the dance just like me, but I like to see the way they interpret the moves into their body.”

Regular classes run in two-week sessions on Thursdays from 5-6 p.m. and are beginner-friendly. Cost is $10 per class or $18 for both, and advanced registration is required. For more experienced dancers, Banga offers intermediate workshops, too. See veevabangadanceclass.com for more info on upcoming classes and to register.

Guinea-style West African dance with Embody the Rhythm

“What first drew me to traditional Guinea dance was the rhythms of the drums,” said teacher Marita Kennedy-Castro. “I felt like they called my heart and soul back into my body during some particularly tough times.”

Marita Kennedy-Castro leads a West African Dance class at Payson Park in Portland. Shannon Bryan photo

Kennedy-Castro, the founder of Embody the Rhythm, leads Guinea-style West African Dance classes every week in Portland. Like Banga, Kennedy-Castro moved her classes, which typically take place at New Church on Stevens Avenue, outside to Payson Park.

She’s been dancing this form since 1999 and began teaching in 2004, studying under master West African dance and drum artists in the U.S. and in Guinea.

“I fell in love with the dances because they connect us with life’s cycles and seasons and build community through honoring shared experience,” she said. “While simultaneously a gorgeous and expressive art form, Guinean dance and drumming help build and maintain strength, agility, flexibility, balance, and grace.”

But you don’t need all that to start dancing.

“I encourage everyone to focus on feeling the movements, listen to the drums, and ‘fake it ’til you make it’ rather than holding on too tight,” Kennedy-Castro said. “More ease comes with time and commitment, but dance is for all bodies.”

As Kennedy-Castro noted, the rhythm of the drums has a way of calling out to your heart, and the Tuesday evening classes feature a live crew of highly trained and talented drummers led by master village drummer Namory Keita from Sangbarela, Guinea, and including well-known musician Annegret Baier. (Both Keita and Baier also offer weekly drum classes in the beautiful and intricate Guinean rhythms.) Thursday morning classes are danced to recordings from Guinea.

For Kennedy-Castro, the class is also a way to share an appreciation for Guinean dance and drum and the regions and cultures where the dances originated. She also speaks specifically to her own position in the lineage of her learning.

Live drumming during the Thursday evening class. Shannon Bryan photo

“Honoring the tradition and history is incredibly important in terms of cultural appropriation,” she said. “We lose respect for one another as human beings when we forget to honor the lineage of our learning, our teachers, and the source of traditions that sustain us all.”

The traditions of dance, in all its wonderfully varied forms, are rooted in joy.

“Movement is medicine on so many levels,” Kennedy-Castro said. “And I’m inspired to help others access more freedom of movement in their bodies.”

Guinea-style West African dance classes are on Tuesdays from 6:30-7:45 p.m. and Thursdays from 9-10:15 a.m. Both are beginner-friendly, but the Thursday class focuses on foundations. Class is held at Payson Park and live-streamed online. Cost is a sliding scale with a suggested donation of $16.75, which helps support the artists and social change causes. All people, all ethnicities, all gender expressions, and all ability levels are always welcome. Advanced registration is required; bring a mask and water. For more info about dance and drum classes and to register, go to embodytherhythm.com.

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