Dancing to the Soma Beats

LAKE PLACID – Some people call it a hyperactive barefoot workout, but the formal title is barefoot African dancing.

Johnna MacDougall, the founder of Soma Beats, is in the center of the room leading about 25 women and a few children at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. She is wearing a bright blue dress and is full of upbeat energy. She encourages the others to loosen up, speaking to them like a mother figure.

“Find and feel your rhythm,” MacDougall said. “Everyone has a rhythm inside. Find it inside you.”

One day more than 30 years ago, MacDougall, who is 57 years old, took an African dance class for the first time that set her on a new path.

“The first time I did it, I went to class and felt so uncoordinated and enthusiastic,” she said. “The drums took over my insides, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I could do this.'”

Soma Beats was founded around 1984 by MacDougall in Cambridge Beach with the goal of teaching African dance, spreading diversity and building a new community.

“This is what I’ve been doing forever. People tell me I’m like Mother Earth,” MacDougall said. “I just help people relax with movement. It’s important to me.”

In 2002, Johnna and her husband Dave moved to Saranac Lake, where they both began teaching at North Country Community College. The pair co-directs the massage therapy department. Johnna teaches Western massage therapy, Chinese medicine and yoga. She said part of the reason she moved to Saranac Lake was to immerse herself in the nature of the Adirondacks.

The dance

The dancers start by taking off their shoes and socks and then rotating in a circle while introducing themselves to one another. The introductions are followed by what’s known as the waterfall, which is like a warm up and stretch routine before the main dance.

The dancers line up on one side of the room in rows of four and then dance their way to the other side of the room practicing a single dance movement each time.

Then comes the main dance known as the Balanta, a West African warrior dance. The Balanta is broken down into four parts. One section of the dance is learned at a time over a period of five weeks.

“There is a symbolism of the dance,” MacDougall said.

Some of the dance moves mimic different warrior stances like shooting an arrow or holding a spear and shield. MacDougall has trained other dancers who now help her teach the larger classes.

“I tell the girls I dance because I am happy,” MacDougall said. “And they tell me ‘We come here because we want to be happy.'”

Tammy Loewy, co-owner of the Green Goddess natural food store in Lake Placid, has been a regular member of the dance class for some six years.

“A few of my friends were here dancing and I was like, ‘I can’t, I’m busy.’ Then I came and was like, ‘I’m never missing this,'” she said. “I like the freedom of dancing and letting go and the drums. There is something very different about live drumming and the energy.”

Soon after her move to Saranac Lake, MacDougall wanted to continue teaching African dance classes, but there was a snag in her plan – a lack of drummers. Luckily, she met a new friend Karen Kan, a physician and author of the book “Guide to Healing Chronic Pain, a Holistic Approach.” The two cooperated to assemble a group of drummers.

“She literally hugged me and said ‘Hallelujah, my prayers are answered,'” Kan said.

MacDougall and Kan became quick friends, having the similar goal to create a new community centered on health and diversity in the heart of the Adirondacks.

“We have a lot in common and both enjoy spreading health and happiness,” Kan said.

The drums

Wulaba Drum was then founded. A four-member group led by James Gann with Kan, Dusty Grant and Mark Richards. They use drums known as Doun Douns and Djembes, rope-tuned drums with rawhide skins at the ends. Gann assembled his own drums by hand with parts shipped from Africa.

“The live music is a lot different from playing a CD in a dance class,” Kan said.

The process of finding new beats for the dance classes is a back and forth between the drummers and dancers. Sometimes the dancers research a beat and bring it to the drummers’ attention, other times Gann will introduce a new piece of music to the dancers. The drums are essential to the dance because the dancers sync in with the rhythmic, repetitive beats.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to learn a new piece,” Kan said. “We hold down the main beats and James does the soloing.”

Finding a new beat

MacDougall will soon retire from her full-time teaching job at North Country Community College. She plans to continue teaching part-time, as well as take Soma Beats to the next level by introducing new dance teachers with different cultures and styles.

“I just want Soma Beats to grow and grow,” she said.

But for MacDougall, it is about more than just dancing and drums.

She has a plan to turn her home into a relaxation retreat where visitors can spend two or three days to unwind. MacDougall’s home is complete with a private gym, a massage room and a sauna. She will soon install a large bathtub.

“I think she’s expanding her career,” Kan said. “She has a bigger vision to create wellness in the community.”

MacDougall recognizes some people may think her plans are too far-fetched.

“Some people look at me like ‘Wow, you think differently,'” she said.

But naysayers won’t stop MacDougall from doing what she loves: helping people relax and find their beat. Quitting on that is just not in her nature.

Classes and events

Soma Beats dance classes meet every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Lake Placid Center for the Arts annex building.

The groups have announced two upcoming performances on Feb. 22 for the North Country’s Musicians Unite for Local Food Pantries and on March 8 to raise money for the Reason 2 Smile nonprofit organization.