Saturday, October 11, 2008

Standing Engagement: COBA Dance and Drumming Studio

Popping & locking will seem tame
Published in National Post
. [Toronto magazine, Oct. 11, 2008]

Every August, Caribana rolls into town giving the city an undeniable island feel. However, the Collective of Black Artists (COBA) dance trouple is dedicated to spreading that feeling into the winter. As Charmaine Headley, its co-founder notes, "Caribana is the season, but we want to spread it past the season."

Founded in 1993 by Headley, Junia Mason, Bakari E. Lindsay and Mosa Neshama, COBA is an acclaimed dance company dedicated to preserving African and Caribbean arts. It began as "four dancers looking to perform," Headley explains, but the collective soon discovered it would have to take on an educational role in order to get dance opportunities.

"We found that, for us to get more work, we need to educate people about what Caribbean dance is all about," she says, "because it's not perceived in the same way as ballet or modern."

Now at 14 members and one apprentice, COBA continues to put on award-winning perfromances while running a dance and drumming school. While its children's program is its mainstay, COBA offers adult and teen drop-in classes, such as beginner Caribbean dance, West African drumming and Raga funk.

At the first Raga funk class of the season, COBA member and instructor Teisha Smith leads students through dance moves including the Willie Bounce and the butterfly (plant your feet outward, bend your knees in to each other and then out in a semi-circle). With soca and dancehall-tinged reggae providing the soundtrack, Smith breaks down each move into its isolated parts, stretching students' hips and abs.

Although Smith courteously slows down and works with students individually during this 1 1/2-class, she explains that it's a different story by the end of the 12-week program. "By the end, students are able to remember the terminology," she says. "So if I call them out, they can just do it. They're also putting these dance moves together by then."

For 10- to 15-minute stretches, students dance continously learning new dance moves while giving their bodies an intense workout. It's all part of the A-feeree training mechanism developed by COBA co-founder Lindsay, which Smith says is "in everything we do."

"[Lindsay] developed it because he found there was a training method lacking that was suitable for traditional African and Caribbean dance," Headley explains. "Before, dancers used to train in ballet or modern dance before moving into Africanist dance, but for someone with no training, you're asking them to be physically schizophrenic."

Despite her dance background in ballet, tap and jazz, first time participant Leslie Stahl admits, "There were certain things I had to shake that I've never had to shake before." While she cops to feeling un-coordinated for stretches, Stahl got some new dance moves out of the class and notes, "It's a completely different type of skilled dance and a good way to jump into a different culture."

COBA offers evening dance and drumming classes Mondays through Thursdays until Dec. 15. Cost is $20 for one-class drop-in or $110 for a 10 class pass. Call 416-658-3111 for more details or visit

Link to story in National Post here.

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