The Best Party in Town

If you can’t study African dance and drumming in Africa itself, then Oakland’s Malonga Center is the next best thing.


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Looking for a new venue to explore dance? The Malonga Casquelord Center could be just the place.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Deep in the heart of Oakland, amid all the cranes, dust, and scaffolding of new construction, lies a historic old building dedicated to teaching old customs and traditions. If you happen to hit it right, which isn’t hard to do, you’ll hear the sounds of that tradition emanating from the building: people singing, dancing, and, above all, drumming. The drumming is irresistible, and will pull you right into the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, once known as the Alice Arts Center.

Enter through an unassuming set of double doors, nestled between a columned archway and a café, and head up to Studio A. There’s no official person monitoring the center — just a sign-in sheet and a security guard who’ll help direct you, if you’re not sure where to go.

The studio is a huge space, with 20-foot arched windows, 30-foot ceilings, and an old wooden floor coming apart at the seams. The entire place has an old-world, old-school feel with a kind of hidden grandeur that feels straight out of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie (which is pretty much when the building was constructed — in 1928 — as the Women’s City Center).

In contrast to the old-world, old-school feeling of the studio are the classes happening within it. In the Sunday West African class, 10 drummers, all of them on a different type of drum, fill the room with African rhythms that spill out into the hallway. Like most of the other dance classes at Malonga, the live drumming makes the class feel more like a party than a lesson. The drummers hit the beat perfectly as lines of dancers, guided by Naomi Gedo Diouf, make their way across the floor, moving in increasingly intricate and ever more beautiful patterns. But be warned: members of the professional dance troupe Diamano Coura share class with beginners. Still, whichever side of the spectrum you fall on, the class is inspiring.

The Haitian Folkloric Dance class is taught by the talented Portsha Jefferson, who enthusiastically explains not just how to do the moves across the floor, but also what they symbolize. Moves imitating water were the focus of a recent class: a lot of body rolls, and athletic full-body movement where you throw your arms and head back, turning and twisting your way across the room. Like in the West African class, the range of skills in this class means there’s always someone to copy if you lose track of the choreography.

The massive multicultural performance arts space also offers classes in everything West African, Congolese, and Pan-African dance to Chicago stepping and capoeira. If you’re not sure what these even are, be adventurous and try one out.

You can contact teachers directly by going to the website, MCCATheater.com, and emailing them. The best thing to do is just stop by. You learn pretty quickly by asking people which classes are happening and when. Also, bulletin boards on the first and second floors have current information on classes and workshops. Prices vary — you pay the teacher directly — and start at $12 for an hour-and-a-half class. Quite a deal these days.

The Malonga Center is worth checking out whether you’re a serious dancer or just someone who likes to try new things and gets bored going to the gym. There may be no better place in the world, outside of Africa itself, to study African dance and drumming than here, at the Malonga Center in Oakland.

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