Dance to the music

UVSC professor passes on traditional African dance moves

Published: Sunday, July 23 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kim Strunk dances at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Photo By Kim Raff, Deseret Morning News

OREM — To American audiences, African dances may seem about as foreign as dancing can get. But Kim Strunk says traditional dance moves from Africa show up everywhere you look in American pop culture.

Strunk says you'll find it in Chicago nightclubs, in the music videos shown at Times Square in Manhattan, in the movements of Los Angeles street dancers and the second lines of New Orleans.

Despite its different faces, the feel and the movements are the same.

"African dance is at the heart of a lot of the dancing we do here in the U.S.," said Strunk, who is the chairwoman of the Utah Valley State College dance department. "It's the root of jazz, tap, break-dancing and hip-hop. This kind of movement is more deeply rooted in our culture than some people realize."

Strunk knows what she's talking about, having just returned from a four-week dance workshop in Guinea, West Africa, with Guinea dance expert Yousouf Koumbassa. The goal of the workshop was to learn cultural dances within cultural context, so Strunk and three others lived on a compound and danced outside under the trees, accompanied by drums.

The overall experience, Strunk said, was more like a cultural safari than a dance workshop. "I went over to be submersed in the culture, because the dance comes from the culture. I came back transformed. It's like African boot camp or 'Survivor' with a lot of dancing thrown in."

This was Strunk's second visit to Guinea with Koumbassa's group. Her fascination with African dance started in 1992.

Strunk was a dancer for more than 12 years with the Salt Lake modern-dance company Repertory Dance Theater before she started doing Congolese (Central African) dancing. She first saw Guinea dancing at a dance camp in California's Sierra Foothills, and she's loved it ever since. "It felt like dancing is supposed to feel. Dancing is supposed to make you feel better, and this made me feel that way for the first time in a long time."

When she got back to Utah, Strunk realized no one was teaching African dancing in Salt Lake City, so she started seeking out teachers in San Francisco, Oakland and other larger metropolitan areas. She teamed up with Jenni Indresano, a Guinea dance expert, to start a West/Central African dance class here in 1996.

The class was an instant hit.

Eventually, Strunk stopped dancing with RDT to pursue a master's degree, emphasizing African music, dance and art. She still teaches the dance classes (held each Tuesday and Saturday at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center downtown), but now she spends most of her time at UVSC, where she restructured dance degrees to include four-year programs and an emphasis in integrated studies.

The college helped fund her latest expedition to Africa, and she came back full of new ideas to help her students grasp what African dancing is really like.

Let the cultural safari begin.

Strunk's trip started in Guinea's capital city, Conakry. She stayed on a compound with Koumbassa's family, without the convenience of running water and electricity. Everything at the compound seemed like it was from another time, including the tailor who heated his iron with coals.

The dancing was what kept her grounded. Every day, twice a day, the dancers would gather on the cement just outside, "like dancing on the back porch," she said. Then the drummers would start a boom, ba-boom, rhythm that stirred their hearts, and the movements would just take over.

Despite the freedom of dancing, however, the heat and crowded conditions at the compound felt oppressive. Side trips to the Island of Room (pronounced "Rome") and Kindia, a park in Guinea's forested highlands, allowed Strunk to see more of Guinea and get to know its many cultures better.

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