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Learning West African Culture through Drum and Dance

Dancers and Drummers in the West African Drumming performance.
By Sharon Mejia and Tiarra Braddock

Traditional West African sounds filled Ford hall at Ithaca College as students in the African Drumming and Dance class performed on stage this past Thursday, Oct. 27.

The one hour performance took place at Ford hall in the Whalen School of Music and had around 40 attendees – ranging from students to faculty members.

West African Drumming and Dance Ensemble is an Ithaca College one-credit class open to all students and is comprised of three performance components: drumming, singing, and dancing.

On HomerConnect, the class description entails that students have the opportunity to explore traditions of West African music, African musical instruments, and dance movements in ritual, ceremonial, religious, and recreational contexts.

Students are expected to learn and perform the African concepts of drumming, singing, and dancing. During the performance, the students took turns with drumming, dancing and singing.

Dancers and Drummers in the West African Drumming performance.

The class takes place once a week and the students rehearse the dancing, drumming and singing techniques. Sometimes they get together on the weekends to keep rehearsing.

Dr. Baruch Whitehead is the Associate Professor of Music Education and World Music, and founder of the Greater Ithaca Community African Dance and Drumming ensemble.

Each summer, Dr. Whitehead takes IC students to the Dagara Music Center in Medie, Ghana, and studies African Drumming and Dance where he has established a short-term study abroad program through the International Studies Department at IC.

Dr. Whitehead said that he brings in people with professional experience in West African drumming to give students better insight on the culture.

“Sometimes we are able to bring in master drummers and dancers from Africa by the way of Chicago. It’s really nice to have someone who really knows the music and who was in that culture to come here and do it…I don’t feel like I’m the teacher, I feel like i’m more of a participant and partner with the students.”

Dr. Whitehead even took part in the performance by playing the drums and singing with his students.

The performance consisted of different dance movements and coordinations, singing, and drumming beats that represent West African culture. The students performed several dance, singing and drumming series that portrayed different aspects of African life and community.

The class doesn’t require students to have any previous experience with singing, dancing and drumming.

Alyssa Napier, a senior theater arts management major, took the class for the first time this semester with no prior dance experience. She explained how she became comfortable with dancing in class.

“You kind of forget that you’re dancing… you’re with a group of people with who you become really close with… you just let loose and totally forget what you’re doing, which is nice.”

Alyssa Napier ’17, student performer.

Some students did solo performances in the middle of the stage while the rest of the class circled around them.

At the end of the performance, they opened up the stage to people in the audience to go up and dance along to West African drumming.

Josiah Spellman, a junior music, educational and voice major, is the teacher assistant for the class and has taken this class since his freshman year.

“Dancing at the end, that’s the main part of the African culture. Having everyone participate, no one is left out, having fun… putting everything aside for whether five minutes or two hours just to go in there and shake a tail feather, have fun… just let loose.”

People in the audience went on stage to dance with the performers.

Dr. Whitehead said that this class gives students a global perspective on music and how the music of Africa brings people together.

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