Do You Want To Learn This Beat?
Edited and Produced by Hannah-Kathryn Valles
Voices (in order of appearance):
Hannah-Kathryn Valles, reporter and narrator
Deinya Phenix, director of Batalá
Susan Kingsland, member of Batalá
Jaida Chandler, belly dancing instructor
Njeri Grevious, belly dancing student
[belly dancing music fades up]
Hannah-Kathryn Valles (narrator): No, I’m not in Egypt. I’m at a dance studio in the heart of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Today’s class? Belly dancing.
[belly dancing music]
Nine women stand facing floor to ceiling mirrors with coined belts tied to their waists. There’s a hip roll here and a hand movement there.
This… is CUMBE, the Center for African and Diaspora Dance. Inside a three-story brick building in Restoration Plaza, every day is a celebration of African movement and music.
[sounds of drumming]
For more than 10 years, CUMBE has been serving Brooklyn with a selection of dance and music classes rooted in Africa. But for many who dance there, the studio is more than just a place to move their body. It’s also a place to find community, connect with their heritage, and feel deeply empowered.
Deinya Phenix: A lot of people who join the band wanna be part of a community of women. And they’re in it for community, even more than for the music. And, that’s a pretty amazing thing.
That’s Deinya Phenix, a social scientist and lead instructor of the all-female Afro-Brazilian drumming group Batalá. We’re sitting on a shaded curb next to Tompkins Square Park where Batalá has just finished marching in an Earth Day parade. For Deinya, it’s a meaningful place.
Deinya Phenix: So right in this spot where we’re sitting, this is where we uh, we did our first gig. Our first in-person gig after the lockdown. We did many virtual gigs//But there’s nothing like being out in person, as you’ve seen. It’s nothing like being in the community and walking around.
[sounds of people cheering, playing bells, tapping drum sticks]
After the march, Batalá inducts two of its newest drummers. The two women run through a tunnel of outstretched arms and drumsticks—emerging from the twist of limbs fully-fledged members.
Hannah-Kathryn Valles: Was this your first, was this your first drumming session with Batalá?
Susan Kingsland: It was the first gig, yeah. I’ve been rehearsing.
Hannah-Kathryn Valles: Okay! How do you feel?
Susan Kingsland: Oh, wow. Haha. I was nervous. Yeah, definitely nervous. It was really fun. It’s hard.
Susan Kingsland took up drumming in January after attending a three-day workshop hosted by the studio. Everything she knows about drumming she learned in the last four months.
Susan Kingsland: They throw you in pretty soon. They throw you in like, you’re ready, go. So that’s kind of a trial by fire.
Hannah-Kathryn Valles: Yeah.
Susan Kingsland: You just go and do it and you figure it out. So, it’s fun.
Deinya says, that’s by design.
Deinya Phenix: Our community subculture of the band like jumping people in when they initiating them, when they first do a gig and initiating them after their, um, their, uh, little bootcamp that we do at the beginning. All of that has like some spiritual undertones to it.
Deinya leads marches with Batalá in events all over the city, and teaches at CUMBE on Friday evenings.
[sounds of Deinya Phenix teaching inside the studio]
Back at the studio, she uses the Afro-Brazilian Agogo bell to demonstrate the basics of rhythm. With focused intention, the students begin to tap on their bells. Some struggle with it. Others, Batalá veterans, play the beat with ease.
Once their confidence is built, students graduate to the drums. There’s Surdo one and two,
[sound of surdo one and two being played]
[sound of dobra]
[sound of repique]
[sound of caixa]
–each has its own purpose and tone.
Deinya Phenix: The repique is the most talkative. Even though the caixa’s going constantly. The repique is the most conversational of all the drums. Right? Um, so you’ve got a really fast vocabulary.
Little by little, everyone gets the hang of their role. Soon enough, the entire class is dancing and swaying—the rhythm too electrifying to resist.
[sounds of drumming]
At one point, a CUMBE staff member pops her head around the door. It’s a subtle cue that class is over. But no one seems to want to go.
[sounds of people chatting and laughing]
Even after the drums are put away, people linger—chatting and catching up. It feels like a necessary pause between the communal world of drums and the world beyond Cumbe’s doors.
[sounds of people chatting and laughing fades out]
A few days later, I went to check out another class.
[belly dancing music]
Belly dancing is the newest addition to CUMBE’s repertoire of classes. It’s taught by professional dancer and instructor Jaida Chandler.
[belly dancing music fades out]
Jaida Chandler: When I was five, I saw a ballet that my mom took me to and I was like “I wanna be a dancer.” And my mom looked at me and was like “Oh you’ll die in the poor house.” And that was the end of the dance discussion until I went to college.
Jaida began her belly dancing career more than 20 years ago. Over the last two decades, she’s mastered her craft and frequently performs internationally.
Jaida Chandler: I’m just on fire when it comes to belly dancing and sharing this dance and talking about what it’s done, not just for me, but for women. I believe this dance is for every woman, every woman in the world should dance this dance. And the benefits are just…(sighs), where should I start?
She pulls out her phone and opens the notes app.
Hannah-Kathryn Valles: (laughs) Did you write them down?
Jaida Chandler: Oh I have a list! To pull them out whenever I need to. So, back to the benefits. So, um, health benefits, you know, building core strength, posture, it aids in digestion, increases balance, circulation…
Jaida goes on to list the benefits she’s experienced. But she doesn’t stop there.
Jaida Chandler: And then spiritual benefits, you know, we get a chance to kind of understand the power of sensual sensuality and its physical and spiritual implications. I think it’s important to feel that we’re liberated with the notion that we as females, you know, and our sexuality, it’s healthy and it’s powerful and it’s significant.
In that moment, I realized that I had, consciously or subconsciously, bought into various myths about belly dancing. I either oversimplified it or hypersexualized it. Jaida deals with these assumptions a lot. She calls it the “Hollywood version.”
Jaida Chandler: This isn’t the kind of dance that’s meant to seduce and I feel like, you know, a lot of times men will, will look at belly dancing and feel, you know, it’s a dance for them. They take it the wrong way and they feel that, you know, they kind of objectify women who do this kind of dance.
When she says this, I notice her back straightens and she gets a resolute look in her eyes. I sense her conviction that this dance is so much more.
Jaida Chandler: But I just feel this dance has a lot more depth and history and meaning other than the superficial part of it.
Then, Jaida grows quiet.
Jaida Chandler: And um, you know, recently I just shared with you, my husband passed away last year and um, this dance has helped me so much to heal, to focus on something that’s really beautiful and meaningful. And, um, you know, it’s, this dance can really help a lot of women if they’re going through something in their life too, not just me.
Before I go, Jaida offers to give me a mini lesson.
[sounds of Jaida Chandler teaching]
We face the studio mirrors and I try to mimic her movements but I feel a bit clumsy, unsure of how to isolate my belly from the rest of my body. Ever the teacher, Jaida is patient and helps me get the hang of it.
Over the next week, I steep in this new knowledge. And the following Sunday, with fresh perspective, I return to Jaida’s class.
[belly dancing music]
This time, I fully appreciate the complexity of the technique and the undertones of empowerment that pulse through every movement.
[sounds of Jaida Chandler giving instruction, coined belts clinking]
After class, I overhear one student say that she comes to Cumbe all the way from her home in New Jersey. I wanted to find out what makes it worth the haul.
Njeri Grevious grew up dancing pretty much every dance you can imagine—tango, Indian classical, West African, belly dance. She’s also a classically trained violinist.
Njeri Grevious: I don’t know if I can dance and play the violin at the same time. I have definitely dreamt about it. That is for sure.
She danced all throughout highschool and college. And after graduating, she moved from Connecticut to New York City for work. She took a few classes here and there. But nothing stuck. 6 years went by. Then, her partner told her about Cumbe and she decided to check it out. In a way, returning to dance was an act of reclaiming a part of her identity.
Njeri Grevious: Being separated from dance for like, between six and seven years now, I, you know, I did feel a little bit of myself go away, and that wasn’t the most pleasant feeling and I was just like, okay. I have to go back into dance because when I’m dancing, I feel like myself, I feel whole.
Njeri says Cumbe offers her a space to connect—with herself and with community.
[music fades up, “Running Waters” by Jason Shaw]
Njeri Grevious: This is a center for celebrating blackness and the black diaspora, but also black joy. And so I’m glad that this space is centered around celebration. Spaces like this that are able to honor, you know, just that commitment to safety growth and just cultural diversity, those are spaces that are extremely important to treasure.
[music fades out]
Music courtesy of Jason Shaw, via AudioNautix, available at audionautix.com