BRATTLEBORO -- It's a symphony of movement, and Caro Diallo is the conductor, guiding some 20 dancers through a carefully orchestrated series of movements.
By themselves, the movements are, alternatingly, graceful and assertive, sweet and sassy, delicate and effusive. Taken as a whole, they are symphonic, with peaks and valleys, dramatic highs and lows, themes and variations. And all accompanied by a relentless drive of African drumming, first by five drummers, then six, then seven, finally eight, who pound a beat so all-encompassing that you feel as if your heart has aligned itself with them and is now beating out their rhythm, too.
It goes on for 50 exhilarating minutes, and the dancers are beaded in sweat. It looks grueling, exhausting, unrelenting ...
"It's pure joy," said Gena Corea, one of the dancers at this typical Wednesday night African dance session at The Stone Church on the corner of Grove and Main streets. "It's one of those times when reason loses its tight grip on the brain."
"It's bliss for me," agreed Wendy Sherry, whose dedication to African dance has led her to take a trip to Senegal and had her dancing this past Wednesday even though she was only four weeks removed from knee surgery.
Just about every Wednesday, Brattleboro gives itself over to the music and dance of West Africa, first at Namory Keita's drumming class at Centre Congregational Church and then to the Stone Church for African dance classes.
Fun in their own right, those classes serve a prologue to the Abene African Dance and Drum Festival, which celebrates its ninth annual edition in Brattleboro from Friday through Sunday, featuring classes, performances, a Malian meal, a film screening and more.
This year, Caro Diallo, Senegalese choreographer and lead dancer of the dance troupe Black Soofa, returns as primary teacher and inspiration for the festival, which was named for his village in southern Senegal, West Africa: "Abene" means "place where good is encountered."
Diallo's students revere him. "Caro really has this gift of teaching to different levels simultaneously," said dancer Ingrid Sell.
Corea was one of those students when she lived in Cambridge, Mass. When she moved 10 years ago to Putney, she couldn't imagine life without African dance, so she invited Diallo to come and teach. That was the beginning of what has grown into weekly classes year-round in Brattleboro, season classes at other locations in the area, and the festival, which typically draws in excess of 100 people to enjoy its many offerings.
"It's a great community. It's fun for everybody to be together. It's got a good spirit," said drummer Keita.
The festival begins Friday afternoon when Diallo leads dances classes from 2 to 4 p.m., and 5 to 7 p.m., followed by a dance class led by Pape N'Diaye from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
On Saturday, classes begin at 10 a.m., and continue through 5 p.m. At 6 p.m., there's a Malian meal served by Dieneba Macalou of Brattleboro Farmers' Market fame, followed at 7 p.m., with a screening of the film "Sahel Calling" about "human rights, music, and hope, raising the voice of the silenced in Mali, West Africa"; and then a performance at 8 p.m. by Derrik Jordan, Julian Gerstin, Tony Vacca and John Hughes and then Diallo, N'Diaye, Keita and other festival dancers and drummers will present a high-spirited celebration of the cultures of West Africa through a sequence of songs and choreographies.
On Sunday, the festival features dance classes with Diallo at 11:30 a.m., and 3 p.m., and a drum class with Keita at 1:30 p.m.
People are welcome to come sit and watch the festival, but the emphasis is on just doing it. Even if you've never danced before or don't know a thing about African dance, it's easy to jump in and just move. And it'll be good for you.
"For me dancing is healthy. It's medicine," said Diallo. "When I don't do it, I miss something."
Abene strives to create a welcoming community, where all feel comfortable trying it.
"I often tell people who are new to it ‘You have to be patient with it. Feel the rhythm and do the best you can,'" said Lindenfeld.
"We're so involved with this notion of performance, when actually, it's an offering," said Corea. "I think what this offers is the chance for joy and movement and to come into a whole other realm."
Throughout the Abene festival African wares will be for sale.
Festival admission includes a package of all eight dance classes for $115; six dance classes for $90; four dance classes for $60; a single dance class for $16; a single drum class for $16, $10 for the Saturday performance and $12 for the Malian meal.
Tickets are available at the door or at www.africandancevt.com.
Beyond the festival this year dancers will have an opportunity to study with Diallo on Wednesday, Sept. 4, at 7 p.m., at the Stone Church; and Fridays, Aug. 30 and Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. at the Putney Community Center. The classes are two hours long and the cost is $15 per class. Keita will continue to hold his drum classes on Wednesdays, from 6 to 7 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church. The drum class is $10 and there are extra drums available. Also, Diallo will offer Zumba classes at the Supreme Fitness & Gym on Putney Road on Mondays at 7 p.m., through Sept. 2nd. Members can take the class for free and $10 for a day pass for non-members.