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Preview: African dance and drumming ensemble Dema prepares for year-end performances

As the members of the Dema African Dance and Drumming Ensemble filed into one of their final practices before their year-end performance on Friday and Saturday, the pressure of their upcoming shows didn’t seem to phase them. The second floor of the Gerlinger Annex was buzzing with conversation while participants happily unloaded their instruments and accessories into their practice space.

Dema is a class at the University of Oregon focusing on dance, music and storytelling traditions of Ghana and West Africa. Director Habib Iddrisu describes it as “the total performance experience. That means combining your own making of costumes, music, dance, storytelling and theatre all in one. What is special for me, and also for us, is that it is a community. The best performances come out of community.”

UO students and community members alike can register for the class, although availability for community members is limited. Junior Taylor King has taken Dema every term since Fall 2015 and said she appreciates the diversity in the group.

“We have Ph.Ds in physics, political science and undergraduates in various studies,” she said. “People probably stay for two terms at least because everyone falls in love with what Dema is.”

A large portion of the class is devoted to building relationships with other members and forming a community. Dema participants divide into three committees focusing on outreach, fundraising and social events. The social events portion is highly valued by the group.

“We like to do stuff outside of class that helps us come together as a dance troupe, but also just as a community,” King said. “We want everyone to feel comfortable.”

Taylor King and other dancers practice during a Dema Ensemble rehearsal in Gerlinger Annex in Eugene, Ore., on Tuesday April 17, 2017. (Aaron Nelson/Emerald)

Dema has taken trips to Portland together and gathered many times to eat pizza and enjoy one another’s company. Most members have no background in African dance or drumming, which Iddrisu says he appreciates. He has taught dancers of all levels but said the relaxed environment creates a pressure-free learning space.

“Our performance is not about competition. It is more about people expressing their individuality, and if I make it a group with only people who can dance well then I miss the basic principle,” Iddrisu said.

Fifth year student Nelson Trujillo joined Dema this term, and is enjoying the experience so far. “It’s a totally new thing on many levels,” Trujillo said. “I had no experience drumming and they brought me in for sure.”

Iddrisu was born in Northern Ghana into a family of five musicians, and from an early age has used music to keep the history and culture of his ancestors alive. After dancing and choreographing throughout Ghana, Iddrisu won Ghana’s Best Dancer award, given by the Entertainment/Art Critics and Reviewers Association in 1993. He then came to the United States and earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in African History and Africana studies from Bowling Green State University before getting his Ph.D in performance studies from Northwestern University. Iddrisu continued to teach and choreograph dance for a number of groups and universities before coming to UO.

The members of Dema greatly appreciate his attitude and approach to the class: “Our professor is amazing,” King said. “There is so much we can say about him. He is fun but he is also very serious about what he does. Not in a way that is intimidating but in a way that you know that he has good intentions for the program.”

Dancers perform a segment of their upcoming performance during a Dema Ensemble rehearsal in Gerlinger Annex in Eugene, Ore., on Tuesday April 17, 2017. (Aaron Nelson/Emerald)

Iddrisu acknowledges that the final performance of the year for Dema is a lot of work. Members are a part of every portion of the planning and preparing: “We all make the costumes together, I design them; we buy the fabric and make them together,” Iddrisu said. “For some people this is the first time they’ve ever had to sew.” 

King said she has been preparing for the show by getting a healthy amount of sleep and staying in shape because the dances are fast and physically exhaustive. “Some people’s nature is just to be anxious when big things like this come up but [Iddrisu] is really trying to alleviate that stress and just push people to focus on the fun that we are going to have,” she said.

There is heavy emphasis on expressing individuality in Dema, and King said Iddrisu encourages this idea.

“[Iddrisu] creates such a fun environment that allows us to be ourselves and to make mistakes in the best possible way,” King said. “One of my favorite quotes that he says that I’ll continue to hold through the rest of my life is: ‘Every time you make a mistake it’s an opportunity for a solo.’ ”

Dema’s performances are at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 19 and Saturday, May 20 in the Dougherty Dance Theatre. General admission tickets can be bought at the door or at the UO ticket office for $12. Students can attend for free if they arrive one hour early with a school ID.

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Sarah Urban

Sarah Urban

Sarah Urban is an associate A&C editor at the Emerald from San Jose, CA.

For tips or questions contact her at [email protected] or check out her work at