In Andrea Markus’ West African class at The Ailey School in New York City, listening is just as important as moving. “My goal is to get them to really listen for what makes each rhythm distinct,” she says. As her 7- to 8-year-old students sing, hear the drummer and then dance the steps, they become familiar with two to three djembe rhythms each year. “If you break it down and repeat it every week, the things they can do by the end of the year are impressive,” Markus says.
Because West African dance doesn’t have codified terminology, Markus frequently creates her own names for movements based on imagery. “If we do a step that goes side to side that looks like swimming, I’ll call it the water step,” she says. “That works for me with young kids, and it makes the step work for them.” She also threads modern dance concepts into class. “As a modern dancer first, I love Laban terminology, so I do throw it in,” she says. Movement qualities (sharp vs. fluid), spatial levels (low, middle, high) and body actions (flexing and extending the spine) all find their way into her lessons. Since improvisation is also a big part of West African, Markus incorporates it into her warm-up and has students improvise while they change lines in space.
In addition to basic studio etiquette like wearing proper attire and being respectful, Markus has one classroom rule that is very important to her: As class comes to a close, she has students put their hands over their hearts and say “thank you” to the musician. “The drummer works really hard for us, so we never leave class without saying ‘thank you,'” she says.