As a child, I was often unceremoniously deposited at the Railyard Performance Center on Saturday mornings, where I impatiently awaited my father and the end of African dance class. In those days, he still danced instead of drummed.
Also in those days, the center was an unassuming box space with uncomfortable floors and a low ceiling, situated behind Tomasita’s in the Railyard proper.
If you frequent the Santa Fe Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, you’re probably familiar with the venue.
Nowadays, the center shares a building with the Railyard’s Box Gallery, opposite Warehouse 21 and across the tracks from the Farmers Market Institute. Near the end of the market, it’s hard to miss the sound of drumming wafting out to fill the Railyard with its percussive beats.
The woman behind this operation is owner and instructor Elise Gent, an energetic 49-year-old woman with a high-pitched voice. Gent and her husband, Eric, established the new center after the old building—which they had managed since 1996—changed ownership.
Gent, who studied ballet and modern dance in New York City, came to Santa Fe after college and has been here ever since.
“In the first year [in Santa Fe],” she says, “I found this African dance class on the Plaza in this amazing studio. It was the first time I saw children at a dance class. I didn’t get it at first. We met this drummer named Gielles Premel…and Eric started studying drumming with him. He played for African dance class, and so I went and I just got hooked.”
On recommendation from Premel, Gent next studied Haitian dance with John and Mona Amira at
“That was the real beginning,” she says. “They were a family. They had little kids. He was the drummer. She was the dancer. They showed me this possibility of being a dancer and being a mother and having a family that doesn’t exist in the American dance world.”
After Haitian dance, which Gent says has dances that range from “graceful and snakelike to dances that are chaotic and percussive and joyful,” she began studying Congalese style with Mabiba Baegne, as well as dances from Guinea, Senegal and Mali.
“It just kept growing as a community,” Gent says. “We kept finding that it was about coming together and having this place where everyone was connected to each other, but everyone was there for themselves.”
On a good day, the African dance class can lure 80 or more dancers, barefoot, and garbed in sarongs and colorful, baggy clothes. As for the class’ continued success, Gent attributes much of it to the drummers, who show up to play live for every session.
“One reason [the dancers] keep coming back is because, I think, having live drumming—especially if the drumming is really good—is something your body really wants,” lead drummer Fred Simpson says. “Drumming can motivate you to exercise. You ask a dancer—they can be dead tired; they come in and, if the rhythm is kicking, they’re gonna dance.”
Simpson also teaches drumming classes on Monday evenings at the Performance Center.
“Live drumming hits you here,” he goes on, pointing to his chest, upper back and stomach.
The African dance class itself is split into several sections. After an extensive warm-up (20 to 30 minutes), the dancers form a circle, with Gent at the center, and perform a series of exercises and moves that build strength and endurance and help foster a sense of community. From there, the dancers form lines, four abreast, and dance from one end of the hall toward the drummers at the far side. The line portion of the class is perhaps the most distinct, but Gent says she thinks the circle is the most important because it allows everyone to participate and be equal.
Once the lines form, Gent steps out ahead of the first group. She demonstrates a series of moves, which increase in complexity as the class goes on, and then signals the beginning of the dance in a voice that pierces through the drumming. The lines of dancers advance down the floor in sequence. When they reach the drummers at the end, the lines split down the middle, and the dancers return to the beginning by moving along the sides of the hall.
Unlike a traditional dance class, Gent’s African dance class doesn’t use mirrors.
“It’s not about how you look,” she explains. “It’s about how you feel. I used to teach exercise classes, and I felt like everyone looked in the mirror and thought about what was wrong, what they wanted to change…It’s about appreciating yourself, connecting with everyone, connecting with the music and feeling good.”
Also, dancer Hallie Dalsimer says, “It’s nice when you can connect to the joy of the activity and feel really in your body instead of feeling like it’s something you’re subjecting yourself to. It’s something you get to indulge in and connect to the joy of it.”
The dance takes heavy rhythmic queues from the drumming, which is, itself, very complex. The use of long, repeated patterns helps train the body for the movements and keep the heart rate up.
“Just in case the world as we know it comes to an end,” Simpson says, “this is something that we can still probably do. We can still get together with our drums, be outside somewhere, and we can dance.”
1611 Paseo de Peralta