Library Staffer Finds Her Essence Teaching West African Dance

Library Staffer Finds Her Essence Teaching West African Dance

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Liz Fowler dancing in GuineaLiz Fowler in a dance class in Guinea.

How many of us can say that we experience joy on a regular basis? Joy, that greatest delight.

Liz Fowler can. It comes to her every Thursday when she walks barefoot to the front of the room at the Dance Hall in Kittery, Maine, and, for an hour and a half, leads a class through the steps of traditional West African dance. 

“It fills me every time,” says Fowler, the periodicals and media manager at the Dimond Library. “When I drive home afterward, instead of being exhausted because it’s been such a long day, I am completely energized. Just full of joy.”

Fowler has been dancing since she was a child; the routine classes of tap and jazz and ballet. She came to African dance about 20 years ago and hasn’t stopped since. In fact, she so fell in love with the movement, the music, the expression, that she has traveled to Guinea four times since 2007 to dance where the culture’s roots are deep.

After returning from a two-week trip to Guinea, Fowler continued to take lessons, attending a West African dance festival in Boston where she met a teacher who was planning a dance trip to Guinea. This time, she stayed for two months. When she returned, she began teaching at different venues around the Seacoast.

Three years ago, Fowler started offering lessons at the Dance Hall, accompanied at times by as many as eight drummers who provide the “language for dancers to follow.” Some of them are from the UNH music department; some are from Guinea; one, who now lives outside Peterborough, makes the 80-mile drive weekly.

The drums, she says, build on the dancers’ energy, and provide the base for the dancers. “We all have different levels of self-consciousness. With the drums, you just forget and let go,” she says.

Each of the dances, of which there are hundreds, have different rhythms. Some are fast, some are slow. And, as with most dance movements, African dance is often rooted in tradition, used to tell stories; to share history; to celebrate such events as harvest, planting, baby naming, and other rites of passage.

Learning African dance is not as difficult as one might think, Fowler says. “I think people are afraid to try African dance as opposed to something like Zumba because they have preconceived notions. You have to be willing to let go,” Fowler says. “Sometimes people have a lot more rhythm that people think.”

Her classes are full of beginners as well as “regulars.” There is one woman who has been coming since Fowler started teaching in Kittery, and knows all the moves.

“There is such a sense of community, and it’s such great energy,” Fowler says. “It allows me to forget. Whatever I might be obsessing about, worried about—it goes away when I’m dancing. I’m so very glad just to have this in my life.”

You can read more about Fowler’s dance classes here. Or you can attend the free class she is offering at the Dance Hall on Jan. 30.