Gotham Gazette

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Dancing in the Park

Central Park represents many things to many people -- solace, a free gym, a source of inspiration, a place to read and write, a place to disappear. To me, it is an 843-acre backyard that reminds me of my Texan upbringing. I go there to breathe when the walls at home seem to close in on me.


I usually enter through a gateway of benches at West 110th Street and roll on my inline skates past picnickers, tennis courts, the castle and the Boathouse Café. Every year, I promise myself a detour for a pick-up game of volleyball in the worn grass across from the reservoir. But instead, every weekend, my destination is always the same -- the African Drum and Dance Circle near the Band shell.

I was intimidated when I first encountered the African drummers in Central Park six years ago. The music and faces were different. They were from Senegal, Mali and Ghana. The circle made me wonder if I was out of touch with who and what I was as an African-American. The beat touched a primal nerve, reverberating in the torso, echoing in the ears, and I couldn’t help dancing on my skates to the drums. I did not know how the drummers would react, or what I would say or do if they said something to me.

Now I feel at home dancing in the drum circle. I have bonded with the African drummers and the other members of the circle, through languages, cultures, incense and comfort zones that intermingle and in some instances collide there.

The music beckons passersby from all corners of the park. It is a legal intoxicant that causes foot-tapping, finger-snapping, hip-swaying and losing track of the time. The drum circle lowers inhibitions as people cross ethnic, religious and economic boundaries and dance. There is no need for red tape, velvet ropes or government polices. The circle is its own world. The only rule is to enjoy. Flailing of bodies, heavy breathing, and sweating is encouraged.

There is no special training or equipment needed to dance in the center or off to the side. It is as simple as taking a deep breath, smiling and stepping back into the enclosed area. The drum circle is a family of brothers and sisters who aren’t keen on parental figures. The aim is unity without a pecking order. There is harmony among the core drummers and dancers, yet there are periodic challenges from outsiders seeking to strike a sour note.

Prior to dancing with the drum circle, I can’t recall a time when I was airborne without being on an airplane or tossed in the air by an older cousin. The drum circle was the first time I was compared to a puppet without its strings, or having coils in my legs instead of bones.

I leave the circle physically exhausted, yet looking forward to the next weekend. Central Park and the circle have kept me happy and alive.

Kendall Williams is a freelance writer, editor and English as a Second Language tutor.

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