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Dance for Joy And Get a Great Workout, Too


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ST. LOUIS - Slowly, they stretch their necks, arms, legs, shoulders and backs. This pace is hardly typical of what comes next: an explosion of movement.

In the minutes that follow, a struggle ensues in which every part of the body strives to carry out fast-paced movements.

No muscle is spared as feet lose and regain contact with the floor, and arms and shoulders move side to side and back and forth. Hips emulate the circular movements described in African folk tales about the moon. African drums drown out almost every other sound, except the voice of the instructor, who talks little but urges the dancers to press harder. "Five, six, seven, eight. Five, six, seven, eight," chants Diadie Bathily (pronounced Jah-jay Ba-chee-lay).

And this is only the 10-minute warm-up. Once that's over, everyone gasps for air and clutches bottled water. Silence fills the dance studio. Breathing overcomes the desire to talk, if the two conflict.

Participants in this beginners' African dance class taught by Bathily at the Center of Contemporary Arts in St. Louis can expect a full-body workout.

Jennifer Muhammed, 31, of East St. Louis, said the entire class is just as intense as the warm-up. "It's a good workout, a focused workout, that you really feel for the week," she said.

For many people, dance class evokes thoughts of past and future embarrassment. But Bathily insists African dance offers something for everyone, even for those who think they are dancing-impaired.

Bathily is a professional dancer, instructor, choreographer and costume designer from Ivory Coast, West Africa. He has more than 19 years of professional experience and has studied dances from various West African cultures. He has spent the past four years in St. Louis teaching at COCA and local colleges and universities. He has also led workshops around the country and has performed at the United Nations in New York.

Bathily said many of the dances represent aspects of African culture; some incorporate movements like those in ceremonial West African dances. One of the dances includes arm movements that symbolize charting the path of the moon, he said.

African dance is different from other forms of movement, Bathily said. It's communal, yet leaves room for uniqueness, he said. He wants people to feel comfortable expressing themselves as they dance and not feel self-conscious about being in a group.

Bathily tells participants to think of the class as a family, where they can be themselves and there's no pressure to dance as well as him. "Keep smiling," he says throughout the class, so students won't take themselves too seriously.

"I tell them that it is fun and all about being yourself," Bathily said. "But we grow as a family."

Class members received guidance, but he often said "What's next?" to make sure everyone knew the steps. At one point, he sensed some students did not know what came next in a routine. Bathily said he'd forgotten the next step and asked for advice. "Ehhhhh," he said, emulating the sound of a buzzer after a student gave the wrong response. He then demonstrated the forgotten step and reminded everyone to pay attention.

"I felt like he pushed me," said Sheila Cunningham, 37, of St. Louis. "I'm glad someone thought I could do better."

In addition to toning up their legs, abdominal muscles, shoulders and back, Bathily said, some students reported being able to sleep better. They found it easier to get up in the morning.

"The body is ready to obey the mind," he said.

All of the class participants were women, who ranged in age from 14 to 44. But Bathily's well-toned body and flexibility prove men would also benefit from African dance. The reasons participants gave for taking the class varied.

Sam Greenwald, 19, of Ladue, Mo., has taken various types of dance classes, but decided to take the class in preparation for studying abroad in Africa.

Bathily's class received high marks from Cunningham, who was taking the class with her daughter.

"I feel energetic; before I was tired," said Cunningham, who was slightly out of breath but in high spirits. "I plan to take the next class in the fall."

Elisa Thomas, 28, of O'Fallon, Ill., said she was more familiar with tap but took African dance for a change of pace. Thomas looks like someone who could have been in the movies "Flashdance" or "Footloose," but she admitted keeping up was not always easy.

"You walk out with every nook and cranny of your body aching the first few weeks," Thomas said.

She attributes the fact that she stuck with the class to Bathily's enthusiasm and the beat of the drums, performed live.

"I can still hear the beats an hour after class," Thomas added. "It's hard to switch off the fast pace."

Bathily hopes African dance teaches people to trust themselves and showcases their natural ability. For him, the class is about polishing and building upon what is already there.

"I believe everyone has a diamond," Bathily said. "I want to make it shine through dance and their smile."

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(c) 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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