"It's important to learn the history of dance — before anything else, there was ethnic dance. Even the cavemen practiced dance."
This is the philosophy of Cheryl O'Sullivan, artistic co- director and teacher of Komenka Ethnic Dance & Music Ensemble, an artistic company steeped in traditional cultural performance. The company's dance troupe and choir perform all over the world, showcasing global suites of music.
The company grew out of the hippie movement, according to company manager John Rodi.
"In the '70s, there was a lot of interest in world cultures," he says. "There was the New Orleans Recreational Folk Dance Program at the Behrman Auditorium (that) hosted dance classes. Daniel Gianfala [Komenka's artistic co-director] is an ori- ginal founding member from the 1979 performance group. I was in the second group of Komenka performers."
You don't have to be a company member to learn the choreography. Komenka offers free dance classes on Wednesdays in Loyola University's Roussel Hall that are open to the community. Dance is an exercise that works many muscle groups at once — arms, legs and core — and the intricate foot patterns of international dance styles are great cardio.
"Rehearsing the Bulgarian (variation), I get 10,000 steps, easily," O'Sullivan says.
Learning different dances works the mind too. Dancers must remember O'Sullivan, Rodi and Gianfala's choreography, and must be able to communicate with dance partners. Spatial awareness and coordination also flex cognitive muscles.
"You have to be ready to sweat and ready to work your body and your mind," O'Sullivan says. "A lot of people don't think about dance that way — as an exercise for the mind and the body. It's a double workout."
Komenka's dance card for the 2016-2017 season is full of Polish, Spanish paso doble, Bulgarian, American disco, Saudi Arabian and Turkish whirling dervish variations, as well as tinikling, a Filipino arrangement performed by barefoot dancers jumping in and out of bamboo poles manipulated by two seated parti- cipants pounding out a syncopated rhythm on the ground. Komenka's catalog also includes dances with origins closer to home.
"We represent Louisiana as well as the United States," O'Sullivan says. "You may learn Lindy hop, or the American version of can-can, or some basic tap. We also teach a Cajun suite."
There aren't many prerequisites for taking a class with Komenka. A basic knowledge of dance and general fitness help. As with most aerobic exercise routines, it's not recommended that a completely sedentary person suddenly take up 75-minute-long workouts. Class begins with warm-ups at the barre (a long bar made of wood or metal, usually mounted along the periphery of the dance studio, used for balancing), and advances to center work (performed without any balance supports) and finally to solo or partner choreography across the floor. Dancers need jazz or character shoes and basic exercise attire. All ages are welcome.
Komenka adheres to the regional footwork, music and costuming traditions of each dance. The group hosts guest choreographers, so dancers can learn from a cultural native when possible. Many dances feature partner work, which Rodi and O'Sullivan both enjoy.
"I love partnering because of my background," Rodi says. "I was raised in social dance clubs. I especially love Slavic dances."
O'Sullivan also loves Eastern European variations, particularly because they upend the traditional male and female roles in dance.
"I really like Polish," she says. "I like where I lift the guy."
Dancers who show an aptitude for the choreography may be invited to join the performance company. September is the best time to start classes, since most class time in April and May will be dedicated to rehearsing for spring performances and tours.
"Ethnic dance is for ... your heart, and for your ethnic pride," O'Sullivan says. "It reaches across cultures, and across ages and generations. You can see the older dancers training the younger ones — it's a family. Komenka has become a family."