Even before the 16 careening dancers come into view, even before the explosion of swirling, brilliant colors, you feel it.
The pulse of drumming rhythms hits in the chest, turning the most passive viewer into a hand-clapping, swaying participant in Dundu Dole's extravaganza of African dance, music and folklore.
The St. Petersburg group of children, teens and adults is much more than its billing, "urban African ballet," suggests. Dundu Dole, which means "life force," has developed over the past decade into a kind of performing village, its members as close as family, its ethos one of mutual support and responsibility.
"We're multiracial, multiethnic and multigenerational," founder Jai Hinson says proudly.
"We call her Mama Jai," says 15-year-old Sir Brock Warren, a dancer with the group since he was 5. "Miss Hinson is always teaching us and looking out for us."
His mother, Delores Warren, known in the company as Mama Tiki, says such titles of respect set the group's tone. As Hinson explains at the beginning of each performance, African villages recognized the importance of role models and of gentle prodding from all adults to help all children. Adult women are called Mama; adult men, BaBa.
Dr. Gregory Padgett, a professor of African studies at Eckerd College, in his role as a BaBa, taught the dancers about ShakaZulu, the mighty African chieftain of the last century. He also helped the dancers as they researched the culture and made the brilliant costumes for the group's ancient Zulu warrior dances.
Ricardo Anderson is 19 and performs both as dancer and drummer. Feet bare, hair tightly braided, he spins in total abandon, his arms and legs a sinewy blur. On his face is a smile of supreme confidence. "Yes, there have been temptations along the way," says his mother, Adrian Hamilton. "But after eight years with the company, his attitude is so positive _ he's a delight to be around."
Because being a member of Dundu Dole means having to keep a B average in school and maintain perfect attendance, Hinson and members' mothers "tag team" each other. "If there's a problem at home or in school, we all talk to each other; we have rap sessions with the kids so they know what is expected of them _ and then it's reinforced by all the adults," says Hamilton.
Hinson's vision of an African-based performing group developed after years of study in New York with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey and Chuck Davis, but she has always been aware of her ethnic roots. Even when integration was more talked of than African identity, her father instilled in his children a reverence for the past and its heroes.
"My great-grandfather was a runaway slave. We were always told about how he broke the jaw of the lead dog that was chasing him and managed to outrun the others," she says. Hinson, who moved to Florida after falling in love with the place during a visit, has two adult daughters and a 5-year-old granddaughter who looks to be well on the way to following in her grandmother's dance steps.
Whenever possible, with students, Hinson has traveled to Senegal, Gambia and Guinea in pursuit of the stories and dances of her origins.
In a recent performance at the Palladium Theatre in St. Petersburg, the drumming is relentless. Malik Faye, a Senegalese master drummer, beats pounding rhythms that seem to draw three young women into the center of a circle. With head scarves of magenta and purple and green, their eyes slightly hooded, they verge nearly out of control with kicks and frantic dips. Using authentic African drums of goatskin and cowhide, a combo of large and small instruments urges the teenagers through nearly two hours of aerobic virtuosity. And most of these musicians started on buckets.
"That's what's so great," says Sir Brock, whose two brothers play drums. "We all started on buckets. But you could see these huge drums at the rehearsals _ the real ones. It was always something to work toward."
Charleen Rackland, mother of Denise, Sarah and Eboni Harris, all in the company, is herself a novice who graduated from a bucket to a drum.
"I wish all kids and parents could do this. We're all less shy and more confident than when we started," she says.
At the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg, during the school year, Hinson teaches 70 to 75 students weekly, including many parents and small children. "It's not like being dropped off at soccer," says Hinson. "Here parents and their children dance and drum together, and if they want to they can perform together, too." The classes are free.
Hinson, a former director of Girls Inc., wants the program to be accessible to everyone. But that means stretching each donated dollar. Hinson teaches in St. Petersburg, Bradenton and Lakeland each week. She researches and imparts the history and musicology of Africa to her students through guest speakers and videos. She does all of the bookings for the close to 100 performances Dundu Dole presents throughout the year. She is applying for grants from civic and arts organizations. She supervises the children and parents in costumemaking and set-building parties.
She does it all without a salary.
"Whatever we receive in the way of donations goes right back into Dundu Dole," says Hamilton, who's in charge of fundraising.
Dundu Dole's shoestring budget _ about $30,000 to $40,000 a year _ means the company doesn't have its own facility. "We'll always do outreach," Hinson says, "but it would be so wonderful to have a place to house the drums and sets and to finally offer classes more than once a week. I've got so much I'd like to teach these kids."
The group could also use its own van. As it is, it must rent vans to transport dancers, and drums usually are crammed into Hinson's car.
The performance is over. The dancers and musicians are now the stagehands and grips hustling the papier-mache African stage hut into a van. But the magic hasn't worn off for an elderly African-American woman who waits her turn to approach Hinson. She is beaming as she embraces the director. "I've learned so much tonight," she says. "Things I've never known _ the Malian Empire, the genius of ShakaZulu _ thank you, thank you!"
Hinson understands. "It's not unusual that lots of African-Americans have stayed away from their heritage. But I believe in being positive. Know about the bad things, accept them, then move on."
To obtain more information about Dundu Dole, or to make a contribution, write: Dundu Dole Inc., 1606 N Highland Ave., Clearwater, FL 33755, or call (727) 467-2768.