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WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN

Finding the Beat
At Ewajo, dance is about discovering comfort with cultures and selves
 
 Photo
Artistic director Chris Daigre, left, works with Zen Jefferson and Jessica Jahn at Ewajo Dance Workshop, hoping to help students of all ages relax, find new ways to express themselves and share their life experiences with others.
If their collective body language is an indication, most of these high-school students do not want to be in this class. Geometry? Chemistry?

No. Dance.

It's not that they hate it. They just feel goofy doing it. They are unsure of its value and their ability to groove. And instructor Chris Daigre correctly figures that nearly all the academic achievers in his dance class at the Northwest School on Capitol Hill are here because they have to take an arts class. He assumes they're concerned about how having two left feet will affect their GPAs.

So the first thing he tells them as the quarter begins is don't worry. Just relax, show up and try. That's what will determine their grades.

We hear so much about how out-of-shape kids are today that I imagine them as the Twinkie Generation. Oops, that was my generation. I'm not sure what they are snacking on these days, but the studies about the state of health in kids has never been so grim. Daigre, 39, is from a different generation, closer to mine. He has a low-key approach and a long résumé. He is the artistic director of the Ewajo Dance Workshop in the Madison Valley. His mother, Edna, started it 28 years ago.

In any given class, you might see teens, housewives, corporate executives or business owners moving to popular, jazz and world music. Ewajo's After-School Program offers dance classes that reflect Seattle's African-American, Brazilian, Filipino and Native-American populations. Before the start of each class, students take part in chat sessions that allow them to talk about their thoughts and learn about social, cultural and historical issues. The program concludes with citywide community performances by the students.

Daigre develops outreach programs and workshops with Seattle Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, First Place School (for homeless and at-risk children) and the University of Washington's Upward Bound program. He has danced in many productions, was assistant choreographer of Fifth Avenue Theater's "Hair" and is now working on its upcoming performance of "The Wizard of Oz."

Despite his mother's influence and his natural athletic ability (he was a guard on Roosevelt High School's 1982 state-championship basketball team), Daigre didn't pay attention to dancing until he saw the Russian ballet master Mikhail Baryshnikov on television. And it really hit home when he saw Alvin Ailey of the American Dance Theatre perform. There was an accessibility and a common-man quality he could relate to.

Now he sees dance as a fundamental part of who and what we are. It's communicative, expressive. It's fitness, celebration, communal. It's even history. Ewajo, he says, means "dance of the people" in the Yoruba language of Nigeria.

"I like to link the old and new," he says. "I tell kids that the rap rhymes today aren't new. They are grounded in what came before. It's a way to get into history and get them to think. I ask them, 'Why do you move like that?' And they'll say 'I saw so-and-so do it.' I'll tell them there were many people moving like that long before."

Wearing sweats, tennis shoes and a polo shirt, he begins this particular class by sitting on the floor of the school's basement gym. The kids sit in a circle and take turns describing their exposure to arts or sports. Almost everyone says they've played an instrument or done some singing, but only one has much dancing experience.

"I took a fusion dance class," says one girl, "and it was all older women wearing Spandex and bandanas. I couldn't do anything. It was humiliating." The last thing Daigre wants to do is to humiliate, but dance begins with core strength. So he runs them through rudimentary stretches and exercises. Only about half of them hang in there through entire sets. He asks them to do 10 pushups and breaks his easygoing manner long enough to say, "C'mon. Just 10."

Then he splits them in two groups and sends them to opposite ends of the floor. "I just want to see if you have rhythm," he says with a chuckle. He turns on some African rhythm and leads one group in a simple 1-2-3 side-to-side step all the way down the floor and back before repeating the process with the other group. Each time he begins a new set, he adds a move or a variation.

I am certain these kids are more intelligent than I was at their age — maybe even than I am now — but I'm shocked that only one possesses any discernible rhythm. Yet, their improvement is just as astonishing. Within minutes, most go from giggling and lurching to relaxed and comfortable. They are having a great time. There may be hope.

Then, just as the students are enjoying what they dreaded, the fire-alarm bell blares and they are whisked outside.

Class over.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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