Volume 76, Number 11 | August 2 - 8, 2006

Courtesy Djoniba Mouflet

Dancing king Djoniba Mouflet and his studio full of admirers.

Sweatin’ to Djoniba’s drums

By Sara Levin

Djoniba Mouflet, a smiling Martinique native with boulders for shoulders and a big personality to match, is one of those rare dance teachers who inspires a near cultish devotion from his students. Most of them return day after day, week after week, to get their fix of movement, drums and sweat that has made his Djoniba Dance and Drum Center on 18th Street a Mecca for African Dance. After you try a beginner class, it’s not hard to understand why.

On a typical Monday evening, anywhere from 40 to 75 shouting voices and slamming feet echo pulsating drums throughout the studio. The noise is usually so loud it drowns out car alarms outside the windows, providing a welcome refuge from the street below. Most faces are smiling, the sarongs are colorful, and everyone is itching to dance.

“The live drums and the music really move you and you don’t feel like you’re working out, but really you have sweat pouring,” Mouflet said. “[The drums] have this hypnotic drive to push you to continue. I would say that is the spiritual aspect of African drums in African dance that is not in any other dance forms.”

The center he formed 12 years ago as a melting pot of ethnic dance has since boiled over with crowds of young professionals, college grads, and even celebrities like Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields and Howard Stern who have stopped in to take class. It is also where drummer Vado Diamonde, who survived inhalation anthrax in March, is a teacher.

Slightly out of breath, Geeva Vargise, a young strategic planner for Pfizer pharmaceuticals, beamed under pearls and spandex after completing the class warm-up.

“It’s such a nice combination of cardio and dance, and I don’t really like to do cardio on a treadmill or elliptical, so this allows you to get that type of workout without feeling like you’re really working out,” Vargise said.

Anna Nelson, a 26 year-old teacher, said that when she was going through a personal crisis in September, the class became her saving grace.

“The class was my therapy,” she said. “It really pulled me through. No matter what mood I was in, I would just go and feel amazing afterwards, so then I got hooked.”

Jocelyn Brooks, who works at a non-profit related to the Middle East, said that she initially tried African Dance as a student at Brown University, but became discouraged because it was so difficult.

“It was [Mouflet’s] personality and teaching style that made me want to come back,” Brooks said. “The mixture of the music, how energetic it is, it just gives you a really good feeling when you leave, you feel uplifted.”

The school also runs a recording room, and a scholarship program for young kids. It has given out some 800 scholarships over 12 years, according to Mouflet.

“I used to perform in public schools and I saw a major difference between the public schools on the east side and ones in Harlem,” Mouflet recalled. “I was totally amazed by the discrepancy, how drastic it was in terms of the level of education. For me, I was given the chance by others to go to Africa, I was given the scholarship to come here. So it was important for me to give back.”

Taking it to the Screen

Ambition initially drove him from Martinique to pursue dance in Senegal, Mali and Guinea as a young man, then to Europe and New York City in the 1980s when he studied with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Mouflet has since written a book and composed a CD of West African drumming. And with a wary eye on rising real estate prices, he now has a new DVD called “Joneeba” (a trademarked spelling of his first name), which he hopes “will help me raise enough funds to keep the school going in the future.”

Although the sensation of pounding drums underfoot can’t be replicated on screen, the first DVD chapter is arranged just like a beginner class. Stretches, leg lifts, fast drums, frantic steps and an improvised dance circle at the end make for a Tae-Bo-like workout.

“Of course [the DVD] is not the same as coming to take a live class,” Mouflet admitted. “But it’s a full workout with floor exercises, some yoga and then African dance for cardio. You put it in your DVD player and you should be ready in your dance clothes to take a dance class.”

Other digital chapters contain a biography of Mouflet and information about traveling to Senegal on an organized Joneeba trip. Interviews with Boully Sankho, director of the National Ballet of Senegal and Doudou Ndiaye Rose, a Senegalese drummer, give a small window into Mouflet’s life as a dancer.

Surrounded by pictures from Africa dangling from his office walls, Mouflet described attending a modern, jazz and ballet conservatory in Dakar, while traveling to outside villages to learn local dances.

“The dances that we teach here are the same dances that are taught in the towns of Africa,” Mouflet said, describing the celebration dances performed at parties, weddings or baptisms.

He says he experienced a bit of culture shock upon moving to the U.S. when he learned how little men dance here.

“In African society, men don’t dance like the women, but all men dance,” Mouflet insisted. “You are required to dance because it’s through dancing that you get a wife, through ceremonies.” While most of his students are women, he gives individual moves to the men. On “Joneeba,” Mouflet splits the screen when the men are supposed to jump as the women shake their hips.

While the disc will never replace the studio’s exhilarating atmosphere, it does relay Mouflet’s intensity for dance and teaching that his students have come to expect over the years. It’s also a great way to work out while away, or to learn about the technique if you’ve never tried it before. To find it, try Barnes and Noble, or Djoniba’s website, www.joneeba.com.

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