Jasmine Ceniceros of Troy tagged along with a friend to an African dance class when she was a teenager in New York City and figured she’d just watch. When she got there, the Senegalese teacher told her watching was not an option. She could either dance or leave. Since she didn’t have a ride, Ceniceros danced.
That was 20 years ago, and she has been dancing ever since. In fact, Ceniceros credits the art form with saving her life and keeping her healthy.
Joel Lomnick was coming home from work one afternoon when he heard music playing and saw a small crowd forming in the alley next to an entrance of 27 State St. in Troy. “I stuck my head in and realized they were playing a rhythm that I recognized,” said Lomnick, who had studied and performed African dance with a company in Rochester. The next week, he came back for more.
Schuylerville resident Wayne White, an information technology specialist for New York state, got hooked on drumming in college and has been studying and teaching for the past 20 years. When Ceniceros asked him to play the djembe for her dancing, he obliged.
‘West African Dance & Drumming School of Upstate New York’
WHERE: 27 State St., Troy
WHEN: Thursdays from 6-7:30 p.m. (dance) and 7:30-8:30 (drumming)
HOW MUCH: $12-$15 for adults, $10 for students, free for 18 and under; $3-$5 contribution if bringing children for baby sitting
MORE INFO: 917-710-6612, www.africandancetroy.org
Now the three artists have teamed up to share their love of African dance and drumming through weekly dance and drumming classes in Troy, as part of the West African Dance and Drumming School of Upstate New York.
A baby sitter in the back of the room takes care of any children that participants have brought, so parents are free to dance.
Ceniceros leads participants in a thorough “body awareness” warm-up, and then Lomnick, an electrical engineer by day, takes over, leading the group in African dance from countries such as Guinea and Senegal, accompanied by White who gives cues for the movement with his drumming.
Participants range in age and experience. “It’s really just such a far-reaching experience that anybody of any mental or physical capacity can participate in,” Ceniceros said. She recalls a 92-year-old woman, who walked into class using two canes. She had lived and worked in Uganda for 20 years. “She comes and she stands up in the back so that she can also absorb the energy,” Ceniceros said.
Wanda Parsons of Schenectady, a beginner, came to the classes after she saw Ceniceros perform at a Workforce Development Institute conference. She attends with the goal of getting healthy and fit, and the idea of a nontraditional structured exercise program appealed to her.
Benefits for body, mind
African dancing raises heart rates as the energy of the dancing builds. Barefoot, students engage their arms, legs, feet, hips and even ribs to the rhythmic beating of the drums, following Lomnick. Ceniceros circulates, checking in with students. The dancing helps students develop strong knees and limber hips. When it reaches an aerobic pace, it becomes about stamina, endurance and concentration.
While there is no denying the physical benefits of the dancing, there are subtle, less concrete benefits, too, which is a large part of what drew Ceniceros to the art form and kept her there. She grew up surrounded by drug, alcohol, physical, verbal and emotional abuse. As a teen, she left home to live on her own in an effort to escape this environment, and this is when she stumbled onto the power of African dance.
“African dance offered a way to express the deeply troubling experiences I had survived without having to use words at all,” she said. To this day, she depends on the dancing for an emotional release and to maintain balance in her life.
Parsons could feel this benefit, too. “I fell in love with it and it just seemed peaceful, like it’s going to take you to another place,” she said.
Part of that comes from the almost meditative aspect of the dancing, fueled by the vibration of the drums, in which participants have to concentrate, listen, watch and move at the same time. “It’s like a mental clearing, it’s an emotional cleaning, and it’s a physical clearing,” Ceniceros said.
Lomnick encourages people to experience the mental and emotional benefits of the dance. “Some people consider it meditative or look at it from a spiritual healing point of view,” he said. “There’s some type of restoration that happens.”
Many come for the stress release. Christine Fitzsimmons of Albany, a nurse by profession, started coming to classes at the beginning of last year. “Every time I danced, it was really freeing, and expressive and it got all my stresses out,” she said.
In addition to classes, Ceniceros performs around the area. With former partners Zorkie and Felix Nelson, she took part in the Dance Flurry Festival in Saratoga Springs. Cathy Teitelbaum, director of dance at Albany Academy, invited the group to take part in its Festival of Nations and also to its wellness day.
The Missing Link African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in North Troy asked them to perform at its Toys for Tots Christmas giveaway party. “We wanted to expose our kids to something different,” said Pastor Willie Bacote. “They’re always exposed to so much violence and hurt and pain, and this allowed them to be a participant in the dance. It was an awesome experience for the kids.”
White considers the cultural aspect of African music, as well as dance, an important one. The drumming he teaches is different than what students would learn in a traditional school environment. “I think it’s really important for kids to learn this stuff because it helps to create a broader understanding of culture,” White said.
Ceniceros, a portrait photographer, is wholly convinced of the power of African dancing as a life-transforming art form. “I believe that African dance is one of the most effective healing and strengthening forces out there in today’s world,” she said.
With that in mind, she plans to form a not-for-profit organization to help broaden the work that she, Lomnick and White are doing. Her vision is extensive — transcontinental, in fact. “Making it available to as many people as possible is the agenda,” Ceniceros said.
She plans to apply for grants that would allow the group to go into schools to work with students.
Ceniceros also would like to do fundraising to bring African dance teachers from New Paltz, western Massachusetts and eventually even Africa. “It will allow the musicians and current artists that are local to expand on our knowledge by bringing guest artists from Africa and New York to the local area,” White said. “It helps us to increase our knowledge and helps create excitement for current students who want to experience something different.”
She also has plans for a program in Africa, where a group of students would travel together for a firsthand experience of African culture, music, food and living in an African community.
Unlike Ceniceros’ initial experience of “dance or leave,” people are welcome to come and check out the classes without participating. “We want people to see what we do and feel comfortable walking into the class and observing,” Lomnick said.
In addition to the weekly dance classes, White offers drumming lessons immediately following.
The road to realizing her vision is a slow one, but Ceniceros is determined to see it happen. “I work so hard on this because I know how powerful it is,” she said. “Personally, I understand how powerful it is to give yourself this kind of gift that is so profound and so many parts of the human experience.”