There is a goosebump moment I enjoy, in my life, on a regular basis: when I lead the song “Waka Waka” in my Zumba classes, and a room full of old folks of European and Asian descent raise their arms reverently at the end as Shakira says “We are all Africa.”
The same thing happens when I lead a class of multi-ethnic teenagers; the white kids request this song week after week after week. Inside my head, I wonder about pop music and race and cultural appropriation vs appreciation, wanting to be respectful of that line and also wanting to give myself over to the music, and feel the love. Inside our bodies, when we dance together, we all feel united in the mysterious fluidity of being human. While we are sweating we are hearing, deep in our cells, some resonating memory of the first mother.
In February, I turn my playlist over to black artists, and my dance class becomes an energetic musical retrospective of cultural contributions by beloveds gifted with African melanin along with their genius. For many of my students, it’s a new experience hearing or dancing to the music America grew up with. For others, the comfort of old favorites brings back memories, in that way only music can. For all of us, it is a chance to feel connected through a shared challenge, expanding our empathy and understanding.
My workshop, or as I call it a “playshop” (since Zumba is so fun fun fun), is a 90-minute journey through history that explores the story of pop music and allows participants to shake things they aren’t supposed to in daily life.
We start with Scott Joplin, the first American superstar (who maybe you didn’t even know was black when you were whistling “The Entertainer” as a kid). In the early ragtime choreography I highlight all the “shocking” moves that parents feared their kids were doing in the jazz halls: the “Grizzly Bear,” the Vaudeville shuffle, and the “Black Bottom” (which, until I learned about the roots of twerking I assumed was about a kind of pie or a swamp valley somewhere.) Another part of the song features the “Castle Walk,” the stiff-legged version of the two-step, the first dance craze that swept the nation thanks to the white ballroom dance couple that first made Jazz ‘safe’ for mainstream America. This sets up a theme of going past fear and into joy, which is what the black community gives the world, again and again and again.
As we dance through the 20s (Louis Armstrong), 30s (Cab Calloway) and 40s (Billie Holiday), we see these moves return and evolve, becoming a scaffolding for every dance craze to follow— from Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” —the song that kicked off the 1950s dance craze craze—to “The Wobble”, which just makes some people crazy. I throw in “Shake A Tailfeather” (Ray Charles) to give students a minute with the Bugaloo, Flop, Fly, and Watusi, and set them up for this decade’s Youtube sensation, the Nae Nae. In between the dance crazes we celebrate Harry Belafonte’s calypso and the first African superstar, Miriam Makeba. If the class isn’t getting tired after some Donna Summer disco, Stevie Wonder funk, and Salt n’ Pepa hiphop, We go nuts for a few minutes with some raw Public Enemy soundz; if not, we go straight to the Purple One and then find our way to Beyoncé.
Every time I do this class I donate all profits to Black Lives Matter or another group in support of ending the othering. Please read this illuminating article on how to save black lives. Because deep down, we are all Africa.