Spirit Steps

The beat goes on at the Drum and Dance Learning Center in Bordentown.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   Strange how a veil can transform a woman.
   At the new Drum and Dance Learning Center in Bordentown, founder and co-director Kim Leary is teaching a veil workshop, one in a series of classes focusing on Middle Eastern dance.
   Ladies of various ages, shapes and sizes straggle into the class, remove their shoes and warm-up on the dance floor. They joke about the class, or exchange tales of their day at work or at home. They’re here to leave the everyday world behind, to touch the goddess inside for just a couple of hours.
   Ms. Leary finds some particularly rhythmic ethnic-fusion music and cranks up the DDLC’s kick-butt sound system. Pretty soon hips and heads are swaying and fingers are snapping.
   Then the veils come out, sparkly, silky, rainbow colored pieces of cloth that work their magic on the dance students.
   "Pretend there’s a gale force wind blowing at you," Ms. Leary says. "Don’t just cross the floor with a piece of cloth — dance it across the floor. I don’t care if it’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’ — let’s see some attitude."
   And her suggestions work. The women — some in sweatpants, some in dancewear — feel the music and get into the real spirit of the dance, striding powerfully across the floor, the veils trailing behind like fairy wings.
   The steps advance and become more complex, yet Ms. Leary patiently explains and demonstrates and the women follow, some exceptionally well. A dancer since childhood, Ms. Leary is obviously enjoying the movement and music. The little studio in a strip mall off Route 206 vibrates with energy, the students swirling around the floor with their colorful silks.
   Outside, a man passing by peers through the door, fascinated. The expression on his face just says "wow."
   After traveling all over New Jersey to teach, Ms. Leary, a resident of Fieldsboro, decided to settle into her own studio. She and co-director Dave Merritt were originally using the dance space at the nearby Academy Theatre, but found this bigger spot a few months ago.
   Word started to get around about the Middle Eastern, Spanish, West African, Brazilian and Caribbean dance and culture Ms. Leary was sharing with students, as well as the Celtic, West and North African drumming Mr. Merritt was teaching.
   Marking a successful six months, Ms. Leary is looking forward to the new year. DDLC has already launched a new series of multi-cultural dance classes for kids as well as all kinds of offerings in dance and drumming for adults.
   There are drop-in classes for busy folks who would love to move their bodies to world music but can’t commit to a regular schedule. In addition, DDLC is planning to augment its drumming classes with a monthly drum circle.
   "I’ve been teaching ethnic dance and drum for about 10 years," Ms. Leary says. "I was going wherever the work was, really traveling a lot and it was starting to get to me. I knew I wanted to have things closer to home and now I can do more of what I want to do and run all the programs that I want to.
   "The classes can stand alone or they can (tie in with) each other," she continues. "People can take a drop-in class or, if they’re interested in performing, can take things further. We want to support their creativity."
   Of course, dancing is a great way to work off some of those extra holiday pounds. It also allows the body to take a joyful break from the sedentary lifestyle so many working adults seem to drift into. Moving to music especially motivates you, so much so it doesn’t seem like a workout, until you stop and realize you’ve built up quite a bit of heat.
   DDLC’s "Funk Fusion Workout" is an especially high-energy offering. The Web site warns, "be prepared to sweat."
   "It’s a combination of funk, hip-hop and different African-based movements, all to cool, fun music," Ms. Leary says. "You don’t have to think or worry about working out. You just keep moving. The nice thing about moving and exercising like this is that you’re also learning a skill — and learning some of the cultural context of the dance."
   Indeed, before the veil workshop begins, she explains that it was Americans visiting the Middle East in the 19th century who became fascinated with veils and incorporated them into a more Western-style belly dance.
   She adds that you’d rarely if ever find Middle Eastern women dancing in public — it’s much more of a family-oriented dance, to celebrate weddings and holidays.
   "Hollywood gave us the wrong idea about belly dance," Ms. Leary says. "As people are becoming more aware and more educated, they learn it’s much more of a cultural thing, a folkloric dance you learn from your family and do at various gatherings. It’s only a select few who will go on to do this in public. In fact, it’s discouraged in Muslim cultures to dance outside of the family structure."
   Ms. Leary has studied and performed extensively, taking multi-cultural dance classes in New York City and Philadelphia. She’s also traveled to Turkey a few times to focus on music, dance and cultural history. She recently returned from one of her frequent visits to California, where she’s working on an advanced teaching certification program.
   Mr. Merritt, a musician, teaches percussion — mostly Celtic frame drum, Middle Eastern doumbek and West African djembe — in a special drum room off the dance floor.
   "What’s great about the way Kim teaches is that she uses terminology that can cross over and be applied to all types of dance, ballet for example," Mr. Merritt says. "We’re not speaking a different language here. So if you have some of the basics, you won’t be in the dark. You can (get involved) if you’ve danced for 20 years or if you never danced."
   The popularity of world music has helped fuel interest in dance from various parts of the world, but people have had to go into the city to study dances from West Africa or South America. Suburban studios seemed to stay with more traditional classical, theatrical or ballroom techniques. DDLC is a bit of a pioneer, bringing multi-cultural studies to Bordentown.
   "There aren’t a lot of places to take ongoing classes in a specific genre of multi-cultural dance," Ms. Leary says. "That’s part of our goal. People can come on a regular basis, explore their own creativity but also learn about other cultures.
   "For kids it’s an especially good way to learn dance, culture and geography from all over the world," she continues. "It’s a kind of cross-curriculum. I know when I was a kid in school, any time dance was connected to geography or something, I could remember it much better."
The Drum and Dance Learning Center, Barracks Trading Post Plaza, Route 206 and Elizabeth Street, Bordentown, offers drum and dance classes for children and adults. For information, call (609) 324-7383. On the Web: www.drumdancecenter.com