This weekend Urbana will be filled with unique rhythms and an infectious joy as around 250 people gather for the annual Midwest Mandeng, now in its fourth consecutive year. Hosted by the C-U West African Drum and Dance Collective, Midwest Mandeng is a 3 day event which takes place at Krannert Center, and it’s dedicated to celebrating the unique art forms hailing from West Africa. Mandeng is the name of a cultural group from the region who partake in the unique style of drumming, but the spirit of West African drumming and dance knows no borders. Though far from its birthplace, Champaign-Urbana is an ideal location for this conference, bringing together artists from all over the United States to this central meeting spot. Families, students, young and old alike are welcome and encouraged to join in on this unique experience.
Drummers playing the djembe, a traditional drum from West Africa.
The festival will host a variety of events across town, from workshops and demonstrations to educational events, delicious food, and dance parties. The classes and workshops are designed to be adaptable to all skill levels – from the very advanced to the first timer. The teachers and spirit of the students together make these places an open and welcoming space. Jamie McGowan, one of the key organizers to the event and a longtime dancer of West African dance, finds this to be the most important aspect of the event. The classes are a friendly space for all levels of physical abilities, where even those highly trained in the art are learning alongside the beginners.
A typical dance class will begin with a 15 minute warm-up, in which the teacher leads the group to properly prepare every muscle in the body for the high energy dancing that’s to come. After, the teacher will bring the students together to talk about the dance. It’s important that each dance be taught not just in movements and rhythms, but with the history, culture, and contexts of the dance’s origins. Next, the teacher will demonstrate the moves and circulate through the class as students try them on their own. The class will be formed in rows of students, in which the more advanced dancers are towards the front and also serve as demonstrators throughout the practice. By the end, students not only have a deeper knowledge about the practice, but their moods are surely to be lifted through high energy exercise and feeling connection to others and the dance.
Students learning moves from last year’s Midwest Mandeng.
If dancing isn’t for you, drumming classes will also be held this weekend. Drumming classes will primarily involve the djembe, a traditional West African drum, with back up rhythm provided by dun duns which have a wide range of sounds. The drumming classes will also feature a brief history lesson to educate students on the origins of the rhythms being taught. Whether drumming or dancing this weekend, the beats and rhythms experienced will take you into next week with a new skip to your step.
Students of a drumming class learning new rhythms at last year’s Midwest Mandeng.
Besides the fun classes, demonstrations, and workshops being offered, McGowan sees Midwest Mandeng as an overall positive contribution to the C-U community. It reminds us of the beautiful African cultures and histories which have created wonderfully unique art forms. By learning more and practicing these art forms, Midwest Mandeng creates an awareness and understanding of African cultures in the community, while at the same time celebrating inclusivity and diversity. For those with African heritage, and especially for young children, it’s an especially exciting time to bring hundreds of people together to celebrate these cultures.
Midwest Mandeng is free to attend and participate for all kids and seniors (65+). Adults pay $18/class, $68 for a day pass, or $136 for the whole weekend, and you can find the schedule of events and classes here. Students with a valid ID have a discount. For those who cannot attend this weekend but are interested in future events and offerings, every Sunday night at 6 p.m. a West African dance class is held at Channing Murray Foundation for a low cost of $5/class. A series of West African drum classes by a visiting teacher will take place later this fall. Thanks to Jamie McGowan for sharing her insights and knowledge.