Friday, August 05, 2005

The Sanctuary Within

Close your eyes and imagine a manmade place that has taken on a life of its own, filled with trees and wildlife scurrying back and forth in what seems to be their natural habitat. Keep your eyes closed a moment longer. Populate this place with different people in various sporting and recreational activities. It shouldn’t be hard; such a place exists in the middle of ManhattanCentral Park.

I go to Central Park to breathe when the walls at home seem to close in on me. The park represents many things: solace, a free gym, a source of inspiration to write, and a place to disappear to read. I usually enter this enchanted forest through a gateway of benches leading into the park at West 110th Street. I’m filled with expectation each time I head to the center of the park. Below, a pathway remains uncharted for me. I’ll explore what goes on down there one of these days, for now, my destination is West 72nd Street. Central Park is an 843-acre backyard that reminds me of my Texan upbringing, although climbing trees, camping, singing songs and telling ghost stories around a fire might be frowned upon by The Central Park Conservancy.

As I journey toward my final destination during the spring and summer, patrons make their way up a hill to a picnic/rest area and a jogging course. There’s a dense concentration of trees that release their scent without fail as I roll by on my inline skates just around the bend heading down past the pond. The baseball field and tennis courts are nothing more than a blur as I shift into second gear. Each succeeding year I promise myself a detour for a pick-up game of volleyball in the worn grass across from the Reservoir. The castle, the boathouse cafĂ© and canoes seldom register as I begin to anticipate the African Drum Circle. There are days when the beats travel across the water and pull me into a hypnotic trance like a futuristic tracker beam.

I’m at home in the drum circle. I have met people I wouldn’t have otherwise. I get back to my roots each time I dance. I was introduced to and formed a bond with Africans from Senegal, Mali, and Ghana, countries previously unfamiliar and distant to me prior to relocating to New York. There’s no assembly required, special training, or equipment needed to dance in the center or off to the side. Friendships are forged, strengthened, and healed as various African and Caribbean rhythms underscore. The drum circle is a family of brothers and sisters who aren’t keen on parental figures. The aim is unity without a pecking order. There’s harmony among the core drummers and dancers, yet there are periodic challenges from outsiders seeking to strike a sour note. Languages, cultures, burning incense, and comfort zones intermingle, and in some instances collide. The music grabs the observer, seduces, and later propels the listener into the center. The music invades the body, fills the mind and ears, causes foot-tapping, finger-snapping, and hip-swaying. The crowd encircles the drummers and dancers because the music calls out to them from their safe vantage points. With each changing rhythm, the assembled draw nearer. Often is the case that it’s difficult to dance, let alone breathe. The beats touch a primal nerve in all; some are more willing to allow their body to respond to the drums that reverberate in their torso and echo in their ears.

People come and go all the time; it’s no different with the drum circle. Over the past five or six years, I’ve seen prodigal sons and daughters stand on the perimeter, waiting for an invite, unsure if they’d be welcomed. It’s as simple as taking a deep breath, smiling, and stepping back into the enclosed area – they acknowledge their absence and signal their return.

Prior to dancing with the drum circle, I can’t recall a time when I was airborne without being tossed in the air by an older cousin, on an airplane, or compared to a gazelle. It escapes me when I was likened to a puppet without its strings, or having coils in my legs instead of bones, before becoming a member of the drum circle.

Six years ago I was intimidated by the circle. I didn’t know if I was out of touch with who and what I was as an African-American. I didn’t know what I’d say or do if one of them said something to me. I discovered drummers as I’d the dance-skaters who made me feel comfortable with classic disco, house and club music. I felt as if I was betraying the skaters when I first encountered the drummers while drinking water from one of the fountains. The music was different. I was comfortable on roller-skates. I’d only seen these faces on television and in movies. I didn’t know if I’d be received – I didn’t see Andrew Lloyd Webber in the vicinity, auditioning for Starlight Express wasn’t an option.

The drum circle has evolved through several locations and years in the park. When I first danced on my skates to the drums, they were stationed near Literary Walk. The mobile village then moved to Bethesda Fountain, a favorite locale for all. The music beckons passersby from all corners of the park. It’s a legal intoxicant that causes people to lose track of time. Cameras flash as professional and amateur photographers do their best to capture the spirit of the drummers and dancers. The drum circle lowers inhibitions and people cross ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries and dance. There’s no need for red tape, velvet ropes, or governmental polices. The circle is its own world. The only rule is to enjoy the music and atmosphere. Flailing of bodies, heavy breathing, and sweating is encouraged.