By Rebecca Spence, Staff Contributor
By the end of the 80-minute class, Dalhousie dance instructor Susan Barratt and her 19 theatre students look exhausted. But they can’t stop smiling.
For many of the students, this was their very first exposure to African dance. The class has spent much of their last two years learning traditional dance genres, such as ballet and jazz. Never before had they been given the chance to experience such a foreign culture in their studio.
“It was very refreshing,” says Claire St-Francois, a 21-year-old honours theatre student who is specializing in acting. “I learned that you don’t need a ridiculous amount of experience to be able to do this. It’s all about soul it seems.”
Richelle Khan, also a 21-year-old acting major, agrees.
“I loved the fact that you don’t really have to fully get the choreography,” she says. “It’s way more about how much physical exertion you put into it.”
“I have a lot of dance experience and I found that it uses a totally different part of your body than the techniques you would learn in ballet or jazz.”
Throughout Barratt’s choreographed routine, the intensity within the studio gradually built. With the help of drummers Glenn Fraser and Peter Watson (a.k.a Unca Pete) who busted out beats on instruments called doun-douns and the djembe, the rhythm became all-consuming. From stomping their feet like elephants to flapping their arms like exotic birds, the class followed its animal instincts. At some points, the energy was so high that Barratt and her students let out yelps and howls.
Katie MacDonald, 23, explains that technique is typical for the group.
“We’re encouraged by our professors to let it all out, and not inhibit yourself.”
An intense physical connection to the art was obviously essential to the process. Watching Barratt, it appeared as though every muscle in her body was 100 per cent committed to the dance. Her eyes wide and her knees bent, she stayed low to the ground like a cheetah on the savannah, patiently waiting to attack its prey.
“I like that it uses every muscle in your body. You feel everything,” says Barratt. “There’s something very organic about it.”
This is Barratt’s first year of teaching at Dalhousie, but she has been teaching African dance classes for about seven years now. She was trained in Montreal, where there is a large community of French-speaking West Africans. She met musicians Fraser and Watson in a samba group in Halifax about 10 years ago. Together they offer their African dance workshops every Friday night at DANSpace.
“I like how celebratory and energetic it is,” says Barratt, smiling. “It makes me happy.”
Throughout the class, Barratt’s theatre students were enthusiastic and eager to learn something new. Many of the students agreed they would like more of an opportunity to experience different cultures through dance.
“I would love to explore India’s Bollywood style of dancing,” says Christine Milburn, 21. “That would be amazing.”
“Russian dance would be really cool,” says Katie MacDonald.
African dance proved to be a great place to start, as it was much less constraining than the genres the class was used to practicing.
“It was very much about being free in your own body,” says Claire St-Francois, 21. “It’s really liberating to do.”