As you walk up to Brick House Kitchen on a Tuesday night, be prepared to be transported out of Charleston. Drums echo as African dancers take the stage, feeling the rhythm and letting go. “African dance is about community,” WO’SE company manager Queen Atterberry says. “A lot of African dance companies have made it this exclusive thing, but if you go to Africa and see the tribal dances, it’s the exact opposite. That’s what we want to do with the drum circle — we want it to be a tribal experience. Join however you can, dance, drums, hoops.”
And that’s exactly what happens at those Tuesday night drum circles. A tribal feeling emerges. There are no set moves or particular dances — instead, it’s a way for experienced dancers to practice new moves and be inspired, and for newcomers to try out African dancing without any pressure. Everyone comes together. Someone might break out a trombone, hoop dancers twirl in the back, and children start dancing on stage, but they’re all feeling the same energy.
Welcoming newcomers, Trevor Kruse, the drum leader and drum craftsman, offers up one of the djembes (a drum from Guinea) to a drum-less guest. Kruse has been carrying the torch as the drum master on Tuesday nights, leading the circle when founder Joel Phillips (of Sol Driven Train) can’t make it. And he leads not only by rhythm, but also by offering tips, tightening instruments, and even switching drums out if need be.
Atterberry also gets to know the people who show up. She points to one drummer, praising how far she’s come in the year that she’s been attending the circle. Daniel Scruggs takes the floor to perform capoeira, but not before giving Atterberry a hug. Other members roam the circle saying hi, genuinely happy to see one another. One could look on and say it’s like an island of misfit toys, and with the ages ranging from 13 to the 60s and 70s, the group is definitely diverse. But they are not misfits. Instead they all fit together — like a family, a tribe.
Washington, D.C.-transplant Atterberry moved to Charleston five years ago and was shocked at the lack of dance, particularly African dance, in the community. “They have African dance companies in Korea, Eastern Europe, South America, everywhere. Charleston was really behind the times,” Atterberry says. To remedy that, she brought WO’SE down from Washington. And being a former soloist, choreographer, and company manager, Atterberry knows what’s up. She’s performed at the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center and has firsthand experience with the form, having lived in Guinea and around western Africa.
Now she teaches others what she’s learned. There’s the drum circle where she provides tips and suggestions, but Atterberry also holds African dance classes every Saturday morning at Dancefx and at 4 p.m. on Sundays at Trudy’s School of Dance. She practices inclusion there, too. “When I first advertised, people would call me up and ask, ‘Can white people come?'” she says. “I was like, ‘Of course they can come. Everyone can come. That’s the point.'”
Mellissa Scott, a principal dancer with WO’SE, has been dancing with Atterberry for five years, having picked up the bug at Florida A&M University. And when Scott dances, she embodies the idea of freedom, which is what she loves about dancing. “It’s a way to shake off the stress of the day,” she explains. Scott also believes in the dance’s inclusion. “We welcome all shapes, sizes, ages, and cultures,” she says. “A lot of our dancers are also older. It’s great that they can perform with a company and not just take classes,” Scott adds.
Atterberry hopes to spread her mission of inclusion, starting with the Charleston International Dance Fest 2013. Arabic, Latin, and African dance will take center stage at Physician’s Auditorium on Sat. Oct. 26. Next year Atterberry wants to make it a truly international festival with dancers coming from Senegal, Guinea, Asia, even Greece. “The Greeks would have just had their fall festival, but they can come too,” she jokes. “We want everyone to show their culture, their dance.”