PORT TOWNSEND — Rae Kala is a traveler — Central America, Mexico, Santa Cruz in California, West Africa — but Port Townsend pulls her back, again and again.
In the past, she helped assemble an African drum and dance community here, partaking in classes at the Palindrome and the city recreation center.
With the arrival of spring, Kala is beginning again, looking to build fresh community in a new space.
The Madrona MindBody Institute at Fort Worden State Park is now filling up with African drumbeats and dance every Monday evening as Kala, firefly-like, guides people through the moves she loves.
Kala leads African dance classes with live drummers — who vary by the week — at the Madrona MindBody Institute at Fort Worden State Park, 310 Fort Worden Way. The 90-minute classes start at 7 p.m. and cost $9.90 each with a 10-class punch card or $12 to drop in.
Kala also teaches “African Groove,” a 45-minute dance workout with recorded music, at the Port Townsend Athletic Club, 229 Monroe St., at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Admission is $6 with a 10-class punch card or $8 to drop in.
“The thing I like about African dance,” she said, “is it’s village dance. So it’s for everybody. People from 2 years old to 80 are doing it.
“That freed me up from having to be ‘good enough,’” said Kala, who doesn’t think of herself as a teacher on a high horse above her students.
“I’m just sharing it,” she said, “because I’m stoked.”
As Kala, 50, moved around this and other continents, she met others interested in African dance. One fellow traveler: Karen Pardini, a New Yorker who encouraged Kala to visit her dance family in Guinea.
Turned out Pardini’s family included Hamidou Bangoura of Les Ballets Africains, Guinea’s national dance company based in Conakry.
Despite the name, this is not the barre-and-pointe-shoes kind of ballet. Les Ballets Africains is a global messenger for the traditional dances and culture of sub-Saharan west Africa.
Kala spent four months in Guinea and Mali, dancing every day for up to six hours at a stretch.
“Take this home and share it. It’s our story,” teacher Manana Cise told her. “If people dance our story, they will know us, and not be afraid of us.”
Back in Port Townsend, Kala met drummers who shared her passion. Rob Hamazaki Cantley, a carpenter and musician, is one; he’s now well-acquainted with the effect live drummers and dancers have on one another.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said, nothing like the blend of the big dundunba, the little kenkeni, the medium-size sangban — all along with the djembe, drum of unity.
Having dancers before you “elevates how you play,” Cantley said. They give him a tremendous shot of energy — and imbue the music with a deeper meaning. As he watches Kala shepherd her flock into the land of rhythm, he sees the gathering energy.
“She’s very dedicated,” said Cantley, to sharing the “infectiousness, the good feelings and vibes you get from doing the dance.
“She doesn’t overcomplicate things,” and she takes care to remind people to take care of their bodies.
During the day, Kala is an occupational therapist with Jefferson Healthcare hospital — guiding people back to healthy movement after an injury. She weaves preventive care into her dance classes. Careful not to “twang” your shoulders too far back, and don’t let your head jerk like a bowling ball on a stick; keep a long, loose neck and backbone.
In class, it’s all about feeling the rhythm in your body. Don’t be uptight about specific moves.
The main thing is “showing up,” she said.
“We’re not performing,” but simply moving with the music.
Cantley, likewise, breathes in the groove.
“No matter what kind of day I’ve had,” he said, “I feel 200 percent better.”
But there is the question of cultural appropriation. Are white Americans stealing African dance that doesn’t belong to them?
Kala doesn’t feel that they are. The African teachers, she said, welcomed her; they blessed her with this learning.
Dancing is a natural thing for the body. Rhythm lives in the beat of our hearts. That is what Kala studied in Guinea.
“It’s an ongoing discussion in the United States these days,” Cantley added, “especially in urban settings like Oakland and Chicago. There are subsets of people who believe [African drums and dance are] just for them,” and he completely respects this point of view.
Yet the African people Cantley has interacted with hold another perspective: This is their gift to the world.
“It’s a human thing,” he said, “to bring people together through music and dance.”
This is Kala’s hope, now as when she first returned from Africa: to bring people together.
She went to Guinea way back in 2000, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Kala looks while leading the class.
Arms afloat like wings, eyes bright, she shows the dancers how to unite.
“I love it so much,” she said.
Diane Urbani de la Paz is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend.