Groove Merchant Drum & Dance Ensemble directed by Kim Leary (Alexia) and Dave Merritt performs dances and plays percussion instruments from cultures around the world. The ensemble performs culture-specific traditional pieces as well as our own original compositions. Some compositions are more traditional, loyal to the cultures that they represent while others are a fusion of musical ideas and traditions. Many of the groups performances have been sponsored in part by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Groove Merchant Drum & Dance Ensemble is the resident performance group of The Drum & Dance Learning Center located in Lawrence, New Jersey (Princeton area). For more information visit.
Interview with Kim, director of Groove Merchant
When was the first time you saw dance?
The first time I saw dance was likely seeing my parents and their friends dancing at a party.
First time you saw belly dance?
The first time I saw belly dance was at the Greenwood Manor in Iselin, NJ in 1989. They used to have a Greek night once a month with live music. Greek nights are a true Greek community experience where families and friends gather to eat, drink, dance and sing for the night. My Mom was taking belly dance classes with Tasha of Dance Phillipsburg (formerly of the Jersey Shore) and had been bugging me to go to class with her. I was pretty busy with dance projects (ballet, jazz & tap) I had already committed to. She took me to see Tasha dance at Greek night. It was like nothing I has experienced before.
I was grabbed by the energy of the live music and Tasha’s dance. I didn’t really know what belly dance was. I began to understand as I watched, there was improvisation and elegance, there was planning and skill that made the show as a whole very exciting and enjoyable. I also saw the opportunity for creativity that was different from what I experienced so far in my dance life. After Tasha’s show, she came over to our table and asked me when I was going to start taking classes. I finished up the projects I was involved in and jumped in with both feet!
How did you get started?
I started taking classes with Tasha and she encouraged me to take every class/workshop I could. Things were different in 1989, there were very few weekly classes and even less workshop situations locally. We would rely on word of mouth or see ads (sometimes outdated) in belly dance publications such as Habibi, Arabesque for workshop and show announcements. For the first few years I studied with Tasha and Helene Lustig locally, Serena Wilson in NYC and some of my first workshops were with Mahmoud Reda, Ibrihim Farrah, Yousry Sharif and Suhaila Salimpour.
In the next phase I studied intensively with Elena Lentini, Aszmara and SaZ Dance Theatre (NYC), Dalia Carella, Artemis Mourat and Suhaila & Jamila Salimpour.
Why belly dance?
A dancer has a short shelf life in the typical genres such as ballet, jazz, tap, generally speaking. What I discovered through belly dance was that most ethnic/folk based dance and music have a place for all people throughout the span of their life. That path for exploration really excited me. I started with belly dance in world dance genres and that opened up my world to Flamenco, West African Dance, Afro-Caribbean dance and more. Dance, music and food are my travel guides!
Why do you dance?
I dance because the music makes me. Quite honestly, everything I do creatively is driven by the music. Like gravity, music has a strong pull and I can’t fight or resist it.
Interview on Groove Merchant Drum & Dance Ensemble
How was the troupe started and formed?
Groove Merchant grew out of a project at a local university. In 2004, I was involved putting together and annual belly dance showcase and decided to have live music for some of the choreographies. Dave Merritt put the arrangements together for me and we recruited some musician friends and spouses of some of the dancers to learn the music for this show. We performed, it went well and it seemed everyone was interested in continuing, so we did. The ideas grew, dancers cross-trained to play percussion and the ideas continued to grow. We celebrated our 10-year anniversary in 2014.
What style of dance does Groove Merchant do?
The music guides all stylization choices, so thankfully, there are no limitations. We’ve put together sets that are straight up Arab night club/dinner club cabaret, we’ve performed full out street beat compositions from New Orleans. We’ve been inspired to dig deeply into folkloric music of North Africa and find the commonalities with West African dance & music. Sometimes we go straight up traditional and sometimes we blend the roots of things for a new form. One term I’ve heard describe us is Bedouin Funk. I think that’s a good fit but it still only describes part of what we do.
Any dancers, music, or styles inspiring the troupe lately?
Afro-Beat stylization created by Fela Kuti and Tony Allen is something we are listening to at the moment. You can hear our tribute to Fela Kuti on the track “Open & Close” on our debut CD, DANSA. Gnawa Diffusion is also in my headphones as of late. Right now I’m loving the dance group out of France, Tribu Chekchouka.
Dig deeply. If there is a spark that ignites your interest on the surface, dig deeply into the roots of what inspired you. Spend time getting to know the people who created it or were revolutionary. Create without fear and always pay homage to those who inspired and came before you.
What’s up next?
We’ve got a bunch of exciting things going on and upcoming in the near future. We have new songs and arrangements we’re working on for our fall performances. We’ll be performing two full-length shows this fall:
October 1, 2016 Hunterdon World Music Day in Flemington, NJ
And November 12, 2016 at The Open Arts Performing Arts Center in Bordentown NJ. Tickets
Any new CD’s or music?
In 2015 we released our debut CD, “Dansa” and we’re really proud of it!
There’s a nice mixture of songs for dance. “Mandiana” was created for our ITS performance group to perform; “Rahat” is a nice upbeat debke inspired song; “Fanga”, is a traditional West African welcome song that will get your booty shaking; “Hey Pocky Way” is a tribute cover song to The Meter’s of New Orleans; and there’s a lot more good stuff on the cd!
You can count on raising the energy when you put these tracks on.
You can get a free download of “Rahat” on our website www.GrooveMerchantDrumDance.com or purchase the cd at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/groovemerchantdrumdance
Questions about the Drum and Dance Learning Center
How does the studio work? Are student exposed to both music/drumming and dancing?
We offer dance and drum classes at The Drum & Dance Learning Center (DDLC) through classes and workshops. The percussion classes are traditionally focused to learn technique and rhythms specific to the Middle East and West Africa. We also offer classes in drum set, Celtic percussion including bodhran and bones and Revolutionary War era drumming.
Musicality is woven into our dance classes from the start. Many of our dancers also take percussion classes. We have a variety of open level classes, which is the perfect place to get started regardless experience.
Open level class cover technique, musicality, study skills, and dance combinations in a variety of stylizations.
I know many people tend to lean toward one specific stylization or another when choosing where to study. I can confidently say that spending time at DDLC will not only strengthen your preferred stylization but it will provide support and encouragement for your creative endeavors, both in and out of your comfort zone. No experience is needed. DDLC provides a great environment for learning new things and exploring creative ideas.
Who teaches at the studio?
Kim Leary and Dave Merritt teach the weekly classes. We also have guest teachers in for workshops, from local experts to world-renowned artists.
Any advice for new students?
RELAX! You don’t have to know anything to get started. The two best tools for learning something new is to listen and try. If you stick with that philosophy, you can’t help but get better. That goes for both drum and dance.
Do you take beginners in both dance and with drum?
What type of music is taught?
We have culture specific classes for Middle Eastern and West African percussion. Within those classes you learn instrument specific technique and culture specific rhythms and history. We have music classes and workshops specifically for dancers that help understand musicality; Arabic rhythms; techniques for building stamina and strength in your finger cymbal playing; the many ways of using finger cymbals; understanding the sections of a drum solo; how to work with live music; how to make the music visible with improv and/or choreography, really the list goes on and on.
Do you do zill/drum workshops for beginners?
We sure do!