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Kuumba Dancers: A story in their steps

Funga, alafia ache, ache; funga alafia ache, ache.

Funga, alafia ache, ache; funga alafia ache, ache.

Dancers dressed in African prints, singing this song of welcome from Liberia, move and clap to the rhythm of the drums. This is not in a village in Liberia. This is right here in the Tampa Bay area, and these African-American dancers _ the Kuumba Dancers and Drummers _ are welcoming the audience to their performance held recently for the Adolescent Day Treatment Program in St. Petersburg.

The lead dancer, Natalie Taliaferro, moves smoothly to the rhythms. Although the other dancers are younger, there's no discernable difference in Taliaferro's level of energy. Her face glows with excitement as her body, feet and hands interpret the pounding sounds of the drummers.

Mention the Kuumba Dancers and people get enthusiastic. With the growing interest among African-Americans and others in African culture, history and music, this folk dance company is in constant demand.

People who have seen the Kuumba Dancers talk about musical director Myron Jackson, drummer and co-founder, and the energy and brilliance of the young dancers. But the enthusiasm for Taliaferro, the artistic director, is often overwhelming. She makes you want to get up on the stage and experience the joy that her dancing exudes.

Once, when they performed at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg as the opening act for King Sunny Ade, Africans in the audience rushed toward the stage and threw money at their feet or placed money on the young dancers' foreheads.

"We didn't know it while it was happening, but that was the highest compliment that we could receive as African dancers," Taliaferro says. "It made us feel so proud. One of the Africans said it reminded him of home."

The Kuumba Dancers will mark an important event at 3 p.m. next Sunday at the Tampa Theater _ its first dance concert since its founding 12 years ago. In the past, they have always performed for other institutions or organizations. Performing with them will be Dundu Dole West African Ballet from Clearwater, a company that evolved through the pioneering efforts of the Kuumba Dancers.

Taliaferro, the driving force behind the troupe, moved to Tampa from New York City 13 years ago. Born in Harlem, she grew up in the Bronx. Her mother exposed her to the arts, especially ballet classes. But it wasn't until she enrolled in Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia, that she was introduced to African dance.

She graduated with a degree in early childhood education, and today, when she's not with her kindergarteners at Mitchell Elementary in Tampa, where she's taught the past 12 years, Taliaferro is dancing.

This dance company of 10 children, six adults and four musicians performs for public schools in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, colleges, churches and other groups throughout the bay area and beyond, including a cultural festival in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and at the annual Harambee Festival in Tallahassee.

They've performed dances from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Brazil (the samba). When they perform the "Gum Boot dance" of the South African diamond miners, the only music that can be heard are the sounds of hands clapping and rubber boots deftly pounding out a rhythm.

When it comes to African drumming, Myron Jackson is widely known. A pleasant young man with a serious demeanor, he's glad the drum is getting so much attention nationwide.

"It's certainly a source of pride now," Jackson says. "The drum was outlawed in this country so that slaves could not use it to send messages. The fact that it has endured is a testimony of its importance. It's representative of people of African descent as well as people who drum. It's a universal instrument, and it's used in every culture in the world."

Jackson and Taliaferro, who met in 1980 at a cultural program in Tampa, say they only perform traditional African dances and music because they want to preserve its culture and history.

"African dance and music play a very important part in everyday life on that continent," Taliaferro says. "There are farming, wedding and puberty dances, dances done by the elders, and sacred dances. All of the dances, movements and music carry a message. We're trying to preserve those dances. One dance, "Gome," is 2,000 years old. It's a social dance that originated in the Cameroons. Fishermen saw it, liked it and brought it to Ghana. Men, women and children dance this dance."

Taliaferro says African dance is an excellent way to learn African culture because you have to study the costumes, the way of life and the meaning and history of each dance. They've studied with African masters of dance and music in Tampa and, in 1988, received a grant from the Tampa Arts Council to study in Phoenix with Ghanaian drummer C.K. Ganyo.

The company now has an artist in residence, Elhadj Malick Sow, 43, a native of Senegal, West Africa. In July, he will take Jackson and Taliaferro on a trip to Africa.

Sow, who has a master's degree in chemistry, came to the United States in 1986 with the National Ballet of Senegal. Since then, he's performed with Katherine Dunham, an internationally recognized black pioneer in ethnic dancing, and at Buffalo (N.Y.) State College. He's also worked in movies and with several celebrities.

A dancer, musician and choreographer, Sow says he has been performing since he was 5.

"In Africa, dance steps and movement are completely different, and if you don't know the history of the dance, the dancer's steps and movements will be inaccurate," Sow explains. "The dancer may use the steps that don't match with the rhythms. Each step represents a tribe of people . . . like a hunter, fisherman, goat or sheep herdsman."

Since joining the company, Sow has expanded its repertory and increased the number of instruments the percussionists use, making sure everything is authentic, even the costumes.

"The drum has three purposes," Sow says. "One is communication. In Africa, when there were no telephones, the drum was essential for sending messages. The drum is also used for healing some mental problems and for enjoyment.

"If I have to write it in red, I can not stress enough how important it is for all African-Americans to learn about their history," Sow says. "It's not just drumming and dancing. Some people might think, "They look like monkeys dancing around.' It is healing and communication. It's a whole way of life . . ."

Taliaferro says they emphasize these tenets to the young people in the company and rehearse a dance only after they have first taught the meaning of the dance, the custom that's being preserved, which gender performs the dance and the clothing or costume that should be worn when it's being performed. The children also learn principles and morals.

Jackson and Taliaferro also stress education to the younger members of the troupe. They're proud of the longevity of their participants. Some of the dancers who started out with the company when they were 8 or 9 are now 21, and still performing with the troupe.

"There are millions of dancers out there," Taliaferro says. "So they will need an occupation. Education is a No. 1 priority for these children. Some of our girls are now teaching dance classes in the community. Most of our young dancers come from public housing complexes, so we're sort of like big sisters and big brothers."

Rehearsals are usually twice a week, lasting an hour and a half for the children and two hours for the adults. They begin with a workout and take frequent breaks. Everyone is encouraged to drink water and to follow a healthful diet.

"For at least a decade, we were the only dance company," Taliaferro says. "What's beautiful about this is, after our company evolved, we began to motivate other people to start their own dance companies. It's so good to see other groups forming now."


Admission for the Kuumba Dancers' 3 p.m. June 27 performance at the Tampa Theater is $9.50 for adults, $6.50 for children, from TicketMaster or at the theater, 711 Franklin Street Mall, Tampa. Call 287-8844.