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The Church Of Debbie

How a white girl from Massachusetts came to Santa Cruz, built a community inspired by African dance and won a Calabash Award

By Sarah Phelan

It's Thursday night at the Louden Nelson Community Center and the auditorium floor is covered with a sea of people lying on their backs screaming. Yes, screaming. They're doing so at the behest of a blonde-haired, creamy-skinned woman wearing a brightly patterned sarong and directing them to do a bunch of other equally weird things, like scrunching up their faces real tight and sticking out their tongues as far as they will go.

No, it's not a therapy session for the criminally insane, though participants say they probably would have gone way crazier a lot sooner, were it not for this weekly dance class, which always--and we mean always--includes this communal scream-your-stress-out routine.

Welcome to Debbie Nargi-Brown's African-inspired dance class. Often it feels less like a class than a tribal reunion, thanks to a devoted following of drummers and dancers, many of whom have been showing up for 15 years and variously describe their teacher as a shaman, healer and cultural treasure, and her class as a mystery spot where people from diverse walks of life find community.

Schaefer Roemmele, who has been attending for 15 years, describes herself as a groupie, and says people think of the class as going to church--"the Church of Debbie."

"Over the years, Debbie's developed this ritual that may feel absurd the first time through, but later makes you feel less afraid to speak your mind and use your voice outside of class," she says.

Roemmele recalls the time that Nargi-Brown forgot the part of the warm-up ritual where she tells people to "Pull your knee to your chest and give yourself a kiss."

"Someone shouted, 'Hey, aren't we gonna get to give ourselves a kiss this week?'"

Her Day Has Come

As the class begins, the drummers start beating out their spine-shivering rhythms, and the dancers line up in rows of four behind Nargi-Brown, eager to emulate her every move as she demonstrates steps that are surprisingly doable, despite their complexity.

Whatever their reasons for attending and no matter how stressed, shy or stiff they may feel at the beginning, one thing's for sure: by the end of class, the entire room has been transformed into an undulating, ululating, dancing and drumming sound tribe.

And then it's time for some singing, but not before announcements--this week, it's the news that Nargi-Brown, along with seven other artists, has been selected to receive one of this year's Calabash Awards, which honor excellence in local ethnic arts.

The reaction around the room to her winning one of these vaunted awards, which are now in their fifth year, is mostly one of "It's about time!" and "Why has it taken this long?" given that Nargi-Brown's class is inspired by dances from West Africa, Brazil, the Congo, Cuba, Trinidad and Haiti, which she learned from touring master dancers and from travels in Africa.

Some of her supporters suspect the answer is linked to the skepticism Nargi-Brown has encountered over the years because she's not a person of color.

Nargi-Brown acknowledges that not being indigenous to the culture that has inspired her has made her choice to teach African-inspired dance controversial, at least here in the United States. When she went to Africa on a drumming and dance tour, however, she found her work as a teacher widely embraced.

"Sadly, the reaction has not always been the same among African Americans, as if the loss of their culture, the sadness and anger they experienced under slavery is still somehow in their bones. And what I teach is definitely non-traditional, though I do sometimes teach traditional moves. So, I've taken a lot of stuff, but it's not been too bad," she says, breaking into one of her famously luminescent smiles.

"I just try to honor where the dance is from. I tell people this class is a bridge to other classes, this class transcends cultural boundaries. And then of course, there's the theory that at one time we were all Africans."

If she's weathered some skepticism, she also has plenty of champions. Eric Schneider, who's been attending for 12 years, says Nargi-Brown's decision to call the class "African-inspired" reflects the fact that "she is very respectful of the tradition on which she's drawing, especially given that American culture tends to steal from every other culture, because we don't have one of our own."

Afia Walking Tree says that when she began to drum for the class "as a woman of African descent in a majority white environment," Nargi-Brown made sure she was feeling safe and well in this setting.

Recalling that she and Nargi-Brown have had many intense discussions about race, oppression and class, Walking Tree says, "Nargi-Brown to me walks with the dance in her bones. She is clear that the kind of community she wants is one where we all feel safe and welcome."

"Because you're feeling safer, others around you feel safer, too," Roemmele explains. "There's immense respect in the room for what Debbie's doing and she has had an enormous impact on people, many of whom have never even attended her class. I've seen people burst into tears in this room, because it provides a rare place for expressing our emotions, be they of joy or of grief."

Time and again, participants stress that the class is not just about dancing and drumming, but about the rare opportunity to build community through these rich traditions.

"I call her Debbiewowo," says Roemmele of Nargi-Brown, "ever since she shared this Nigerian song that asks Akiwowo, the conductor of the train, to please take us home to our father's house. Now I sing, 'Debbiewowo, please take us back to our source, to our ancestors, to a time where we were in a tribe and sang and danced.'"

At the Top of the List

Calabash Awards co-producer Ana Marden says artists are not necessarily chosen because of their ethnicity, but more because of their passion, study and mastery of their craft, plus what that efforts gives back to the community.

"Debbie's name has been at the top of the list from day one, but we're only in our fifth year and if we were to run everyone out at once, the award ceremony would take three weeks, and what would we do next year?" explains Marden of the awards, which are also called the Gourdons, because they are carved from gourds--which is what "calabash" means.

What matters to Nargi-Brown is that when she dancing and drumming, there's a feeling of coming home.

"When I went to Ireland, where my great-great-grandfather was born, I didn't feel any special connection, unlike when I was in Africa and felt a very deep connection to the spirit world which is evoked in that environment whenever people drum and dance."

Though the Massachusetts native took ballet, jazz and tap classes in elementary school, she didn't discover African dance until she came to Santa Cruz 23 years ago on a road trip and ended up staying--oh, and taking a dance class from Jo Anne Bailey, who learned it from Marion Oliker.

Oliker recalls that when she started teaching in 1978, there were no African dance classes in town. Hers was a community-centered, very well-attended class that started a whole movement.

"Eventually, I brought African teachers to town," says Oliker. "Jo Anne was my student, Debbie was hers, and that's the lineage of this class. It's a tribute to Debbie that she has kept its spirit and format alive."

As for Nargi-Brown, she says that she was hooked on this dance form from the very first minute.

" I was, wow, this is amazing, and the drumming really felt like it was a part of me, like I was coming home," says Nargi-Brown, who started teaching her own class at the suggestion of an African American friend.

"I thought, well, if she is saying that, then maybe I should," says Nargi-Brown, whose class has become something of a ritual, including the screamfest at the outset.

"My master's thesis was on the effects of stress on learning, and I've studied the use of voice to get rid of toxins," she explains. "The Chinese believe that when you vocalize your breath, it helps get rid of toxins in the body. And stretching your face is important because your face is part of the dance. "

Nargi-Brown says that over the years, she's come to see dance as a prayer and a powerful form of healing.

"I've seen how it affects people, how people are especially drawn to the class, if they are having a hard time," she says. "Dance is a way for people to get closer to their spirits, it really touches their souls, which is hardly surprising since it's rooted in traditions that began 4,000 years ago, but there aren't so many ways to do that in the technological era."

Moved in More Ways Than One

There are many souls who say they've been indelibly touched. Michael Glusman, who along with Chris Kenney and Gary Kehoe has been drumming pretty much nonstop for the class since it began 15 years ago, says he enjoys the spontaneity it allows him.

"There's a lot of freedom, we improvise a lot of the time," he says. "It's great to be part of this wonderful community of dancers and drummers."

Doug Greene, who has relocated to Sun Valley, Idaho, but still puts out the class's weekly newsletter, says that when he first took Nargi-Brown's class he looked like "a gooney bird coming in for landing on a greased runway."

"The challenge with African dance is the harder you try, the goofier you look," says Greene. "Fortunately--and this is why Deb's class is so popular--the support, care and love being offered by her and others in the room worked its magic."

Mark Schneider, who's been attending for 12 years, says Nargi-Brown helped him get out of his head, out of worrying how he looked, and into feeling the music and movement.

"Debbie undergoes this almost superhuman transformation from housewife and working professional to shaman, who is a channel of love, inspiration and freedom for us all," he says.

Darren Weiner had never taken a dance class in his life until he attended the Church of Debbie 10 years ago. Today, he's a fantastic dancer, and he says he owes it all to Nargi-Brown--that and a lot more.

"I was drawn to that class like a moth to the flame," he recalls. "There's a healing aspect, in which we not only get to move our body in ecstatic ways, but also overcome our lethargy, personal dramas and stress. In that way Debbie really is a shaman, because of her ability to take us with her to another level, to lose ourselves in the hot drumming and be in communion with the Great Spirit, which sums up the deepest level of the class."


As part of a dance-retreat burlesque show titled "Maui 2030," former Metro Santa Cruz staffer Ute Bonn once donned a balloon butt, a gray wig and a cane to act the part of "future Debbie"--the drummers, meanwhile, were depicted as bald, fat and shouting, "Where's the Viagra?"

Reminded of this, Nargi-Brown laughs. "I've been doing this class for 18 years, and I hope to be doing it for 18 more, but I consider myself lucky to be moving. For a long time, my husband, who I met 23 years ago, would say the dance class was a phase."

She laughs again, even louder. "Clearly, this is one phase that will not end."

In the meantime, there's the matter of this award. On March 14, Nargi-Brown will be joined by drummers Chris Kenney, Gary Kehoe, Afia Walking Tree, Michael Glusman and eight of her students on the Cabrillo College stage, where they'll perform a calabash dance to Walking Tree's Everybody Bring Your Calabash.

"We'll come out with gourds on our heads, and do lots of movements that represent how Africans use gourds, like scooping up water in villages," says Nargi-Brown. "And Afia Walking Tree will play the shekere, which is a gourd instrument that's shaped like a woman and has a beaded skirt."

And while Nargi-Brown anticipates that she may still catch some flak when she steps out to accept her award, she can also smile about it.

"Fortunately, there are more people who are happy about it, and I feel it's my calling, that it's part of rising above racism," she say. "For me, dance has always been a spiritual thing, a celebration of the body and of life. And you don't have to be Indian to teach yoga in Santa Cruz."

Debbie Nargi-Brown's class is held Thursdays at 6: 15pm at Louden Nelson. Call 336.8301 for details or check out www.drumndance.com. The Calabash Awards will be presented March 14 at 7pm at the Cabrillo College Theater. Tickets are $13 adv., $16 at the door. Seniors and youth 12 and under are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. Tickets are available at Rhythm Fusion and Bookworks, or by calling 479.6331.

Everybody Bring Your Calabash

In the fifth Annual Calabash Awards 2004, the following artists will receive awards and perform live in a showcase evening in honor of excellence in the performing arts:

Palika, Director of Heavy Hips Tribal Belly Dance.
Sista Monica, Gospel and Blues Vocalist
Javier Muniz, Afro Latin Producer, Band Leader and Percussionist
Debbie Nargi-Brown, Community Dance and Music Teacher
Esteban Ortiz, Mexican Folkloric Teacher and Choreographer.
Shirley Anchetta, Teacher/Performer of Salsa Dance Casino Rueda Style
The Pacific Rim Film Festival, Special Recognition Award

This select group will receive their awards, designed and created by Open Studios artist Liza Muhly, at a gala ceremony with celebrity presenters including Mardi Wormhoudt, Don Williams, Linda Kimball, Marsea Marquis, Ishmael Huggins, Janet Johns, Ekua Omosupe and Wallace Baine. The award ceremony will be held Sunday, March 14, at 7pm at the Cabrillo College Theater, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Tickets: $13 adv/$16 door; seniors and youth (12 and under) $8 adv/$10 door; call 831.479.6331. Tickets also available at Rhythm Fusion (831.423.2048) and Bookworks (831.688.4554).

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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