Before Drumming


Time to go drumming!

When I last looked at the Bi-Okoto Cultural Center website, the Saturday drumming class was at ten o’clock. Because I am almost always early for everything, especially when I am nervous, I get there at nine-thirty. Unsure about where to park, I park on a side street and sit there for ten minutes.

Bi-Okoto is in a building that used to be for something else, probably a long series of something elses. There is a woman outside unlocking the painted-many-times wooden door. It leads to a steep and narrow stairway, the kind that are all over the older buildings in the older parts of Cincinnati.

She asks if I am here for the dance class. Her voice tells me she is from Africa, but I don’t know enough to know where.

“I’m here for the drumming class.”

“Drumming starts at eleven. African dance is at ten.”

If this had been a yoga studio and the yin class I wanted wasn’t for another 75 minutes, I would have told the descendent of western Europeans that I would be back in an hour. She would have replied, “See you then.”

As I open my mouth to say this, the African dance woman says, “You are here now. Come in and dance, then you can drum.”

She sees my hesitation, smiles, and gestures to the stairs. “Come dance.”

I climb the narrow steps that lead to a narrow hallway. The woman is behind me. With its brown carpeting and dull walls, it reminds me of a college apartment someone had, or a converted basement.

The woman directs me to a door at the end of the hall, on the left. As I walk through it, brightness slaps my eyes.

There is a wall of windows with sunlight streaming through. Opposite the windows is a mirrored wall, reflecting all that brightness. The walls not covered by mirror are painted a rich yellow that reminds me of the ochre in Italy, but with more vigor. Bright paintings of flowers and of Africa decorate the corners.

My mind flashes back to the last time I was in a room this colorful, this bright. Guatemala City. More than 20 years ago.

Other women arrive, wearing leggings and t-shirts and sandals. My t-shirt fits the dress code, but my cargo pants that would be good for drumming do not. I wonder about my sneakers.

The woman who welcomed me is the teacher, and she directs us to take off our shoes. A woman next to me slips hers off eagerly. She introduces herself—let’s call her Celeste—and recommends that I take a place next to her, so I can watch. She has adopted me and I am grateful.

As we learn the dance, I follow the teacher but mostly I follow Celeste, who is on my right. When we turn to the left, I am lost because there is no one to follow.

We dance to live music, drums, played by a dark-skinned young man who looks about twelve, and a light-skinned young woman who looks about eighteen. But I’m not sure. I’m not good with kids’ ages.

I’m also not good at guessing the ages of African and African American women. I might be the oldest student here. I might be the youngest.

We dance a dance about planting. We hold our left hands cupped at our waists—this is the hand that holds the seeds. With our right hands, we take a seed. Beat. We drop the seed. Beat.

We kick with our right foot, and I know without the teacher explaining that the kick is to kick dirt to cover the seed. I imagine it would be nice to plant this way, with a group of women, dropping seeds and kicking little clouds of earth.

There is a part of the dance where we lift our hands to the sky and then bend down to the earth. It comes after the part where we watered the seeds. We lift and bend as we walk along the seeds we have planted and watered.

The teacher says that as we lift our hands we are saying, “God, I have done my part,” and as we bend to the earth we are saying, “Now You do Your part.”

I like the balance, this rising and falling, proclaiming and asking.

Class ends and we sit on the folding chairs that line the windows, pulling shoes back on, reassembling. Sweat sticks my t-shirt to my chest.

The drummers pick up their drums and leave through the door at the far end of the room. I am mopping sweat from my head as the teacher says, “Drumming class is through there. Follow them.”

I thank Celeste, tie up my sneakers, and head through the doorway.

Chewing the Cud of Good

Thankful for adventures!





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