Body by Fela: the city's best West African dance classes

Broadway’s most buzzed about show is Fela!, a musical directed by legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones depicting the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a Nigerian political activist and the inventor of Afrobeat. The dancers in the show stomp, wriggle, flex, and fly for two straight hours. And, man, these ladies are ripped. Not surprisingly, Fela! is drawing wanna-be dancers to African classes, just as a generation ago Fame inspired New Yorkers to take modern classes. Sorry Leroy, there’s a new show in town.

Both the Djoniba Dance and Drum Center and The Ailey Extension offer beginner West African dance classes featuring live drummers. Bare-footed dancers wear tank tops, yoga pants, and sometimes a sarong or hip scarf, which doubles as something to mop your brow with.

Beginner Basic class at Djoniba Dance and Drum Center
At Djoniba the warm-ups are super tough and a bit 80s style—loads of push-ups, ab work, and exaggerated stretches that resemble the dance moves to come. Next, Djoniba Mouflet, the studio’s winsome founder, and some of his top students (that could be you in a year!) teach the group step by step—forward and backward ribcage thrusts and jumps, stomps, and twists—then you go across the floor testing what you learned two at a time. The last ten minutes is performance time, followed by a few freestyling minutes with the drummers, who join in mid-class. (Advanced classes get live percussion for most of the hour.) The center has moved to a new location; instead of its old studio, with its worn wooden floors and walls of old pictures, they are renting space within a brand new dance center just south of Union Square. While it’s newer and cleaner, it lacks the character and community hang-out vibe of the old space.
Djoniba Drum and Dance Center, 126 E. 13th St., 212-477-3464,

Beginning West African class at The Ailey Extension
Over at the often hectic (be prepared to navigate your way though kids in leotards) Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, the beginner class is just as approachable as Djoniba’s, with one notable difference. Instructor KAMATE Yah’Ya’s class jumps right into choreography, without the fitness class preamble. That means the drumming and the fast, furious dancing lasts for a full hour. The dance moves, however, pull from the same repertoire. Just as at Djoniba, this style of dance has more to do with the energy and spirit behind the move, than about technical proficiency. The choreographically challenged can rejoice.
The Ailey Extension, 405 W. 55th Street, 212-405-9000,

Have you tried one of these West African dance classes? Tell us about your experience, here!

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