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I went to a drum circle this past weekend and was really looking forward to sitting down at the computer and writing about what an awesome time it was, how I was transformed, how I sweated the afternoon away dancing around the room from djembe to djembe.

But instead of BOOM POW BAM BASS TONE SLAP WAHOO!, all I’ve got is: meh.

I’ve been to drum circles that had me hooting and hollering, throwing my head back and forth, and shaking my shekere till the cows came home (read: My First Drum Circle). When I left this particular event, I kind of felt like I wanted to take a nap.

But who am I to judge a drumming class? I’ve been calling my doumbek a djembe for the past several years. So I did come home slightly more enlightened.

And truthfully, I am no expert. I don’t have any formal education in percussion (aside from a hula dancing stint during which I mastered the ipu and pu’ili), and I attend maybe 3 to 4 drumming events at most per year. But my Old Lady Friend Carrol and I like to think of ourselves as drumming enthusiasts, and we are usually in agreement about whether an event was asi-asi or que bueno!

That said, here are my top 7 qualities that make for a rockin’ drum circle:

1. A play buffet.

Although drums are the pulse of a drum circle, having an assortment of percussive and other complementary instruments lying around can really liven up an event. A bass sound gets the feet stomping, but shake a shakere or maraca in my face and my hips won’t sit still.

When your hands need a break from drumming, you can still chime in by playing a cowbell, wooden block, or dancing around with foot bells. At the most recent event, someone had brought along the simplest of instruments: a set of spoons for clicking and a plastic bag, which when rubbed back and forth makes a light “scratchy” sound. The key, however, is to make it known that these instruments are here for everyone to experiment with and maybe give a quick lesson in how to use them. I saw the plastic bag lying around, but until the owner used it during the last song, I had no idea it could be used as “music.”

An assortment of drums themselves also switches up the sound and provides a range of percussion. Most people bring along their own personal djembe (or doumbek), but having additional drums available gives students a chance to try a different model or size.

Carrol tries out the djun djun

For example, when Carrol and I attended a workshop with Rusted Root founder Jim Donovan, we borrowed some of his impressive djembes with intricate carvings and awesome sound. They were for sale, too!

In addition, frame drums, congas, and bongos are all super-fun. (Especially congas. Oh man, the congas!)

2. Nontraditional sounds.

Every now and then at a drum circle, someone brings along an nontraditional instrument that adds a new kind of aural energy to the atmosphere.

For example, the Australian didgeridoo. This instrument has such an intense, haunting sound, such a primal noise that feels like it encompasses the heaviest, hardest, most indigestible and raw emotions that lie in our gut. What a treat when someone brings it along!

I’ve also been to circles that involved a flute, a guitar (which led a stirring acoustic version of “Let It Be”), and the simplest of unique instruments: the human voice. Jim Donovan’s workshop involved a drumming/chanting combo, where we did things like chant the vowels of the alphabet (A-E-I-O-U) and exploring where we felt each sound’s vibration the most (i.e., chest, head, throat). We split the universal sound (“Om, “Aum”) into four parts and chanted that over and over (A-O-U-M). We also worked with the kundalini mantra Ra-Ma-Da-Sa/Sa-Say-So-Hum. For most of the chants, we’d start with just our voices, gradually add some light drumming, and then allow the drumming to get louder as we also chanted louder.

A word of caution:  If you bring an instrument that is likely to drown out everything else in the room (e.g., snare drum), just be courteous and play it at 50% rather than its full roof-blowing volume.

3. Strong leadership.

Sometimes even a large crowd of eager drummers will fall flat as a pancake with no one at the helm. Having at least one person in the leader role is essential to get things going (and then calm them down when things get out of control), otherwise (a) cacophony ensues, or (b) the rhythm just keeps falling like a plane unable to lift off the runway.

One of the regular circles I used to attend was wicked cool month after month…until the day the two conga-playing men who had assumed the leadership role weren’t there. We were essentially the same group of people with the same instruments in hand, but we just could not get our act together.

Offering a little lesson in technique is a great way to corral a group. At one circle, the facilitator reviewed with us the bass, tone, and slap; we then experimented with various rhythms, learning to play one thing while the rest of the group played another. We worked a lot with repetition–bass, bass, tone, tone, bass, bass, slapslap–trying to get our brains and hands in sync.

As I detailed in this review of a past drumming workshop, one of the leaders was a grandmotherly figure who preached about the importance of self-healing, connection to spirit, and being in tune with the universe. She was a vibrant being from head to toe: poised, passionate, and provocative.

4. Integration of mind, body, and soul.

Like yoga or dance or singing, drumming can be a deeply personal and meditative experience. For me, a good drum circle is one where my mind gets out of my hands and the division between the music and my soul reduces to nothing. When I am compelled to get up from my chair and dance, getting lost in the music, stamping, rocking, swaying, spinning, I have found seamless integration between mind, body, and spirit.

Movement is such an important part of drumming; I get nervous if I see someone playing a drum while sitting perfectly still. The drum sound is our heartbeat; how can it not stir you?! At one summer evening event, our class took some time to walk outside, soaking up the good vibes of the earth, feeling the grass beneath our feet, the full moon glowing on our faces, and eventually coming back indoors for a Mother Earth-related tribal beat.

Even something as simple as breathing can create a deep mind-body connection. At Jim Donovan’s workshop, we started every activity by taking a deep breath and centering ourselves. Even more important, after playing for several minutes, Jim would signal us to stop and then have us sit in silence for a few moments to soak up the lingering vibrations we created. Jim’s workshops also tend to lean a bit on the philosophical side, much like a yoga intensive. Who knew that how one approached drumming could relate to life off the mat outside the drum circle?

Finally, if drumming makes you feel good, express it! During a “Healing, Feeling” drumming event I attended, the leaders infused the class with lots of self-respect, self-care talk. The one woman, Marcy, reminds me of a gospel singer and will just bust out singing things like, “Feeeeel the love!” after a vigorous round of drumming. It’s hard not to throw your hands in the air and follow along with her.

5. Time to train the brain.

I don’t want every drumming event I attend to be a rigid formal lesson in technique, but a good drum circle is one that provides an opportunity for a mental workout. The brain is “plastic” and has the ability to re-wire itself as it absorbs new knowledge, and what better way to get the neurons firing than by learning an unfamiliar pattern and then playing it as part of a three-part round? Bonus points if you don’t hold your breath and/or grimace as you go along. 🙂

Other mentally challenging exercises I’ve done were trying to sing and drum at the same time and being part of a call-and-response during which we were instructed to keep our eyes closed and use our ears—not our eyes—to pick up the rhythm.

6. Inspiring environment.

A cramped conference room with metal folding chairs is not an ideal location for drumming. Although I’m sure it’s very possible to conduct an energetic drumming event in such a spot, people will feel more comfortable busting out in a open and airy environment.

The yoga studio I used to attend was situated on the main road in town, and during the summer we’d draw back the curtains, open the front door, and play as the sun was setting, the overhead fan creating a peaceful breeze. Our music attracted curious stares and smiles from dozens of passersby strolling along the avenue. Drivers stopped at the red light on the corner rolled down their windows and craned their necks to see what kind of craziness was brewing inside.

Even locations off the beaten path can be turned into welcoming ones by making sure the lighting isn’t too harsh or too dim, that chairs and blankets are cozy but not on top of each other, and that people have enough space to get up and move around a bit.

7. A rumble!

Every drum circle should end with a rumble; basically, a time for everyone to frenetically pound on their drums and scream. It is loud and obnoxious and infectious and absolutely exhilarating!

Have you ever been to a drum circle? What was your favorite part?

I’ve been so caught up in reminiscing about my Kripalu yoga teacher training that I haven’t had the time to reflect on the here and now. Sure, there was plenty of joyous dancing and drumming at Kripalu, but those things also exist at home.

I have my sister to thank for incorporating a late night of dancing into my schedule last weekend. She and her boyfriend wanted to do something fun to celebrate their birthdays, so they rented out a former old-tyme theater/now florist shop and turned it into a 1920s dance hall. Guests were encouraged to dress up in their finest flapper/mobster attire and Charleston the night away.

My sister acts as the gracious host

The second girl on the right came dressed as a dude, complete with a violin case that supposedly held her tommy gun.

My sister and her boyfriend

I originally went to a Halloween store hoping to find a ’20s-inspired costume but was unimpressed with the cheap materials and lack of, um, coverage. Then I remembered I had a black dress from college hanging somewhere in the bowels of my closet. I doctored it up with some beads, feathers, gloves, and a shawl, and voila! Switch the camera setting to sepia, and suddenly I’ve stepped out of a time machine.

The location really contributed to the authenticity of the theme. Since we were in a floral shop, the place was mad packed with flowers and plants and smelled amazing. The lighting and wall fixtures reminded me of the lobby in the Tower of Terror, minus the cobwebs. It would be a perfect spot for a murder mystery party!

Slow dance time, with Glenn Miller

Fancy exterior, too!

Sisters!

Since I’m an early riser and not much of a night owl, I was concerned about my ability to stay peppy during a party that didn’t start till 8 (I know–I’m such an old lady!). Amazingly–between the drinks, food spread, great music selection, and crowd–I was on my feet till the party ended at 1. My sister’s boyfriend is a DJ and knew how to pick out the jams, most of which stuck to the ’20s/early ’30s theme. It helped that most of my sister’s friends are theater people (as was I in high school/college), and so the whole night felt like a stage show. Give us costumes and choreography, and we’re set! In fact, they played “All That Jazz” from Chicago twice, and we ended the night belting away and hoofing it like Velma and Roxy.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to put together a ’20s-inspired dance class. Who needs Zumba when you can put some feathers in your hair, pearls around your neck, and tap-tap-tap the night away to some brass? That Charleston is a workout! Also, I smell some more period parties for the future…I’m thinking WWII big-band era, Elvis-inspired ’50s rock ‘n’ roll…get on that, sister!

The night before the dance party I practiced my percussion skills during another Healing and Feeling Drum Circle, led by the same women, Jan and Marcy, whose class I took in the spring. The group wasn’t nearly as big, but the energy was still hot. The yoga studio sits on the main street of a quaint little town, and we kept the curtains open so everyone passing by would be curious about all the hooting and hollering. The windows were completely steamed up when we ended!

I went with Old Lady Friend Carrol. We both brought our own djembes, but we also spent some time shaking the shekeres the ladies provided.

I cannot resist the call of the shekere. At the end of the workshop, Marcy approached me shaking that thing in my face, tantalizing me to dance. She was like a snake charmer calling me from my chair, and I spent the final minutes of the class spiraling and shaking my booty in the middle of the circle. As much as I love dancing, I do always try to participate as a percussionist when attending a drum circle, but 9 times out of 10, my body cannot sit still.

Just as they did during their last workshop, Jan and Marcy infused the class with lots of self-respect, self-care talk. Marcy reminds me of a gospel singer and will just bust out singing things like, “Feeeeel the love!” after a vigorous round of drumming. It’s hard not to throw your hands in the air and follow along with her, repeating her affirmations about loving yourself, loving others, and attempting to make peace in the world. I always leave these workshops wanting to attend a gospel concert. (I attended one once during college to cover for the campus newspaper, and it was incredible. I was not in the best of spirits that night, but I left the concert with just a little more warmth in my heart.)

Part of Jan and Marcy’s schtick is to work through the chakras using sound. We all played what looked like cow bells (called agogo bells) for several minutes; the vibrations were strongest in our head and throat. Next we played frame drums; after a round of banging out a three-part pattern, the vibrations were strongest in our hearts. Finally, we made it back to our djembes, during which the connection to our root chakra was most evident.

After class, the man sitting next to me commented that his right hand was tingling at the start of class but by the end felt loose and free. He speculated that all of the drumming was helping release the cramps and tightness of his “computer hand.” I too noticed that my right hand/arm wasn’t as stiff as it usually is.  Oh, drumming. What a way to work out not just the emotional blockages but the physical ones too!

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

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