As the kirtan singer invoked the energies of Hindu deities, Debbie Steingesser danced ecstatically. This came naturally; a dancer's daughter, she'd been dancing since even before she began studying jazz, tap, and ballet at age five. When the chants lauded the holy couple Radha and Krishna, Steingesser found herself doing not an Indian dance but a fluid, powerful courtship dance from Guinea in West Africa.
"The merge between the two forms happened very organically when I was in my highest state of dance and yoga," said Steingesser, who will teach a class in Afro Flow Yoga, a modality she invented, at Namaste Yoga (5416 College Ave., Oakland) on Saturday, August 14. That this cross-cultural confluence — Indian spirituality, African dance, American dancer — began during a retreat in Guatemala typified the fusion that defines Steingesser's life.
While attending Boston's Berklee College of Music, Steingesser studied dance with teachers from Senegal, Mali, Ghana, and Guinea. Later, she lived in a rural Ghanaian village, teaching health and sexuality at a secondary school by day and learning to drum and dance by night. On weekends, she toured with a local ensemble.
Back in the US, she began training to become a yoga teacher. When her instructor advised her to "teach what you know," the phrase "Afro Flow Yoga" coalesced in her mind.
"What I knew was West African dance, and I believe strongly that in my practice there is no separation between West African dance and yoga," said Steingesser. "The two modalities balance each other like the sun and the moon. I've never known one without the other. West African dance is an ecstatic celebration of joy, expression, community, and culture. Yoga in its essence is the same." The word "yoga" derives from the Sanskrit yug, "which means to yoke, connect, or join together," Steingesser said. Both yoga and West African dance "are about bringing individuals closer to themselves, each other, community, and spirit. It ultimately became clear that my intention was to introduce some of the wild, playful, musical, spontaneous, explosive energy of West African dance into the yoga world — not as a vehicle for performance, but as a way of connecting more deeply to self."
Afro Flow workshops start with grounding exercises and chants. Next, live African music accompanies a Vinyasa yoga sequence infused with African dance techniques. Finally, Steingesser presents lessons in modified versions of actual African dances.
"I add my own twist on the movements in order to relate them to the deity/theme we invoked at the beginning of class. For example, if we chanted to Ganesh, who holds a noose to remove obstacles, I'll introduce a dance movement where we're spinning a noose and I'll ask students to think of obstacles in their lives that need to be cleared. I'll also incorporate Ganesh mudras into the dance."
Meanwhile, musicians play the ngoni, djembe, and balafone. "Dance has always been my heartbeat and my deepest outlet for self expression," said Steingesser, who hopes to visit India next year. 1 p.m., $30. 510-547-9642 or NamasteRockridge.com
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