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Photo By Kim Raff, Deseret Morning News
Kim Strunk dances at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

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.

Between dances, she spent time wandering the island's markets. Conakry is known for its fabrics, especially those with indigo dye, and Strunk considers herself a fabric connoisseur. "Dancers love to dress up, so I buy a lot of fabric when I'm over here, and whatever I don't sell, I let my master's students wear when they perform."

In addition to African fabric, Strunk brought home a mask worn in the dance/rhythm style known as djole. "You can explain to the students how this dance is done with masks, but when they can actually see the mask and hold the mask, they can really grasp what you mean."

Strunk understands the dances more fully after observing the lifestyle in Guinea. All dances reflect the way a people move, she said, but that is especially true in this case.

When dancing in the West African style, your body is almost always bent over, A-frame style, she explained. All the joints of the body are bending and moving, and the center of gravity is low to the ground. Arm movements are big and out, and, as Strunk put it, the overall effect has a "sort of get-down quality to it."

If that description is hard to visualize, picture this: a group of people working in their fields, bent over the crops to pull weeds or harvest fruit, bouncing up and down to move between rows of plants. Once you've seen the Guinea people working in their fields, you can see that same motion reflected in their dance, she said.

Even housework movements show up in the dancing, like the short, quick, back-and-forth shuffling feet that Strunk said reflect the way Guinea women clean their floors, putting rags under each foot and shuffling so they don't have to bend over to scrub.

"I felt like I was stepping inside the rhythms of Africa," Strunk said. "After seeing and hearing and experiencing life the way the people there do, my knowing is so much deeper, and my ability to teach is enhanced."

She said that she knew she'd mastered the dance styles she learned in Guinea when, at the end of the trip, she and two of Koumbassa's other "students" performed at a Dounounba, a traditional African celebration. "It's incredibly nerve-racking to perform an ethnic dance for that people."

But she did it. And she said it was one of the most fulfilling moments of her trip.

In the end, Strunk said her latest trip to Guinea transformed her outlook on life as well as her dancing. "I wouldn't describe it as fun, but as a sick sort of fun," she said, laughing. "It was a profoundly tough experience, to live with people who don't eat every meal, who could have a much better life, but who have a lifestyle with their priorities in order."

Life in Africa is more basic, visceral, instinctive and even primal, Strunk said, just like its dancing.

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