The Dance Of Life -- An Unusual Studio Gives Students Of All Abilities An Uplifting Lesson In The Pure Joy Of Movement

Dance is about life.

It's about when students at Gatzert Elementary do the samba and the twist with Edna and Chris Daigre, during their twice-weekly music and dance classes.

And it's about when the students - half of whom have been homeless or in shelters in the past three years - go home.

It's about a 40-year-old home-health-care nurse who stretches and feels like a dancer during a one-hour conditioning class.

And it's about a teenager who discovers she has the ability and desire to spend a lifetime dancing.

This is the story Ewajo Dance Workshop and Centre has told in the 20 years since Edna Daigre opened her first studio in Wallingford.

The studio settled near the corner of Madison Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way six years ago, after setting up shop in a couple of Capitol Hill locations.

Ewajo means "common dance," in the Yoruba language of Nigeria. Daigre chose it because she wanted the studio to bring dance into the life of the community.

It has.

"To me, it's been so vital to my body image and vitality," said Colleen McElroy, a poet and University of Washington English professor who began taking Ewajo dance classes 20 years ago. "What Edna has done with Ewajo is amazing."

A time for growth

A new chapter has begun for Ewajo. Daigre belongs to the Mayor's Small Business Task Force now. Ewajo organizes outings to UW's Meany Theater for community children who cannot afford to attend the performances. She added children's dance classes 10 years ago.

Last fall, Ewajo was awarded a $6,375 King County Arts Commission grant to teach "Dance As a Cultural Expression," in partnership with the music teachers at Gatzert Elementary in Seattle and Foster High School in Tukwila.

Gatzert, on Yesler Way, is one of four elementary schools where children in transitional housing are transported regardless of where they are living, to rebuild continuity, said Principal Pat Sander.

The dance program there is one of several the school offers - gymnastics and cooking are others - to fill in for experiences parents are not able to provide, Sander said.

Daigre's son Chris, now artistic director of Ewajo, joined the business eight years ago.

"I used to just watch," Chris said with a sheepish smile. "I said, `I'm not getting on that floor.' "

What persuaded him was seeing men dancing in culturally diverse styles: Marvin Tunney in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, Mikhail Baryshnikov on television, former Husky football standout Antowaine Richardson in Ewajo's Afro-Latin jazz classes in the late '70s.

Antonio Terry, a Seattle police officer shot and killed last year while stopping to investigate a car stalled on an off-ramp, also was one of those influences. In the late 1970s, Terry studied dance and performed with Ewajo.

These men, combining athleticism with expression, showed Daigre that dance was indeed about life.

Dance, Ewajo-style, emanates strength and posture from the abdomen. It's a dance philosophy Edna Daigre shares with her strongest dance influence, Katherine Dunham. Dunham, an anthropologist as well as a dancer and choreographer, used her studies and travels in Africa and the Caribbean to create a dance style blending African and Caribbean cultural dances with ballet, modern dance and jazz.

Tunney was one of Ewajo's first students. In 1974, he took an Afro-Latin jazz dance class that Daigre taught for the former Black Arts/West workshop and performance group, soon after she arrived in Seattle.

After dancing with the Alvin Ailey company, Tunney returned to college to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in choreography at the California Institute of the Arts in 1985. He now teaches at the CalArts theater school and conducts summer workshops at Ewajo.

"She made me believe in myself," Tunney said of Daigre. "She said, `Marvin, you have such a special gift.' Every day is a blessing that I'm able to do what I do."

Dancing for all ages

Edna Daigre now seldom performs the Afro-Latin jazz dance she founded at Ewajo 20 years ago. But the essence of the style pervades her dance conditioning and strengthening instruction.

What matters most to the students in the conditioning, Afro-Latin and hip-hop and jazz-dance classes is what doesn't matter. It doesn't matter whether they've had past dance training, as long as they want to get in condition now. It doesn't matter how quickly they learn, as long as they try. It doesn't matter when they begin. That's why the students range in age from teens to seventies.

At a recent Afro-Latin jazz dance class, guest instructors Eduardo Mendonca and Antonio Ribeiro were playing bossa nova on the guitar and bongo while Graca Ribeiro taught samba steps.

A white, gray-bearded man in silver stretch shorts and T-shirt danced next to a black woman in a full leotard and dreadlocks who danced next to an Asian-American woman in tights and a turtleneck.

Graca Ribeiro stepped in one direction while twisting her hands in a circular motion in the opposite one. Most of the 25 students could do it. All tried. Everybody smiled.

"The reason why I stay goes beyond taking dance classes," said Margaret Sato, who took a class eight years ago and now attends nearly every evening. "There is this feeling of community."

Sato, a Boeing engineer, recently donated $500 - $1,000, including matching money - to Ewajo for 12 scholarships for children's classes.

"I knew 100 percent of it would go directly to the children," Sato said.

An early interest

Edna Daigre got her first dose of dance as a 5-year-old at a community center in her native Gary, Ind. The classes were free and she saw dancers - modern and ballet - who were also African American.

"Nobody could tell me I couldn't be a dancer after that," Edna said.

Dance became a focus she kept returning to as she traveled as a military wife to Japan, Guam, Trinidad, the Philippines. In each country, she gravitated to the social and religious celebrations. They always included dance. Shortly after she arrived in Seattle in 1974, her marriage ended. But her interest in dance took root.

For her son Chris, "dance is about life." But dance is not all there is to life: that would be too narcissistic a perspective for him.

Chris does perform. His style combines hip-hop street moves with an eclectic mix drawn from his dance influences - Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Baryshnikov and, of course, Edna Daigre.

His ambition is to take dance to the schools. Five years ago, he began teaching a dance class for Upward Bound, a University of Washington summer program that's free for qualifying high school students whose academic performance is below their aptitude.

Chris wants the students in both the elementary and high school programs to use dance to propel themselves into their academic and professional lives. Students need the physical outlet. But dance also takes concentration and discipline, to learn the movements and memorize the routines. It gives children a reason to pay attention - a skill that can translate into success.

"What I've found is that when the kids feel good about something - one thing - it gives them an incentive to feel good about something else," Chris said. "I'm a different kind of teacher doing a different thing. No other teacher is going to walk in, curl down and touch his toes."

------------ Dance events ------------

Ewajo Dance Workshop has two performances with Brazilian guest artists: Feb. 19, from 4 to 4:30 p.m. at Festival Sundiata in the Seattle Center House; and Feb. 23, from noon to 1 p.m. at the Washington State Convention Center, Level 2.