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Feet of the Beholder

Lisa Berry
Dance that Funky Music, White Girl: Lisa Berry teaches dance at Third Wave.

Can a white woman teach African dance?

By Jessica Feinstein

I'm in the Mission, sitting on the smooth wood floor at Third Wave Dance House after a rousing hour and a half of earth-shaking West African rhythms, my feet throbbing.

With names I can't pronounce (let alone remember), the dances I have just learned have been passed down for generations on the other side of the world. The steps and leaps, the beats on the djembes, reflect a culture outside of Western linearity, far older than anything post-Columbian America has to offer. Which explains what a clumsy girl from the Southwest is doing messing around with the traditions of Africa.

"I think it hearkens back to the origin of the species," one of Third Wave's owners, John Zane, tells me from his colorful back office/living room. "These rhythms are old. Dancing and drumming around the fire has always been the center of any community, and that's what this kind of dance touches in us."

Even for a jaded urbanite like me, these classes are a connective, communal experience. All that pounding in sync becomes like a giant heartbeat, uniting the dancers, drummers and observers. But are the people passing on this experience from Africa's jungles and deserts? My own narrow mind expected knowledge must come from a native African for the communal tradition to be valid. This attitude inevitably pulls up what the 42-year-old Zane calls "the race ticket."

As it turns out, my first ambassador to these cultures is not a wizened old African griot, but a thirtyish petite redhead with Irish ancestors and the energy of a Fourth of July firecracker arsenal.

Lisa Berry has caught her share of flack from the black community for teaching the dances of West Africa, and some students question whether she can ever be qualified to pass on such sacred tribal knowledge. "They feel it's their culture, and I'm exploiting it," Berry says. "There's this constant challenge of 'what gives you the right?' "

The entitlement issue is understandable, considering our country's sordid history of slavery and racial inequality and the unresolved issues surrounding "black" and "white" that continue to poison everyday life.

But Berry's qualifications speak for themselves. As far as technical education is concerned, she fell in love with this form of dance as a teenager and continues to study with many teachers, including renowned Bay Area master Titos Sampa. She spent five years in Ghana learning the steps, rhythms and intuitive qualities of the dance and returned a few years ago to develop a following of her own.

"Ultimately, what entitles me [to teach] is that people come to my classes," she says. "They learn, they have fun. There are far better dancers than me in San Francisco; there are teachers who know more. And I've definitely added my own take on it. But I create an environment that's noncompetitive, where someone can come to learn the basic forms."

Generally, race isn't a major factor on the floor, though it still comes up from time to time for Berry. "When people question my authority, I tell them they have a choice. Nobody's forcing them to come to class. I see it as this: I'm providing a service, I'm facilitating community, which is what African dance is all about. It's a way to connect, which is something we've lost sight of in our individualistic society."

She adds, hesitantly, "It's almost like a church."

There's definitely a reverent air about the room. When the dance is performed up to speed, there's something supernatural in the twisting and untwisting arms, the warp-speed undulations of the hips and the leviathan heights of the jumps. African dance classes are accompanied by anywhere from two to 20 drummers, and it all mixes up into a party of pulsing beats and pounding feet.

So if the ultimate goal of African dance is to achieve connection, as a teacher Lisa Berry does her job well. As for her right to do it--well, that depends on where you're coming from. "When Lisa's out on the floor, you don't see color," Zane says. "All you see is the purity of her style."

For information on classes, contact Lisa Berry at 777-4670 or Third Wave at 282-4020.

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From the April 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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