Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.
“People think that I am African, but I have lived in Washington my whole life. My parents are from South Carolina and came up here in the early 40’s. I grew up in a terrible neighborhood called Sursum Corda. I did a lot of dumb things as a kid. You know, I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. My Mom always said, ‘If you hang with the wolves, you will howl.’ It’s true, but I didn’t understand it at the time. Now, I tell that to my sons. I am blessed to say that I was never locked up. I have never been in trouble with the law. Getting in trouble with my parents, that’s a different story.
“I think that dancing and drumming really saved me from taking the wrong path. I started drumming when I was eight years old. I was playing football for the Boys Club when I heard this drumming coming from the basement of the Boys Club. I was immediately drawn to it. I escaped from practice to find the drumming class and stayed there with my helmet and shoulder pads on. I was mesmerized, and have been ever since. I started dancing a little later bit later.
“All of the dancing we do at Meridian Hill Park is from West Africa. I have been dancing and teaching at the drum circle for 20 years now. It all started because one of the lead drummers, who I knew because we performed together, invited me to come out. There was dancing here before me, but not a lot of West African dancing. You know, a lot of people say that I sound and move like I am from Africa. I guess I can just mark the accent and movement so well. Sometimes the accent comes out and I don’t even realize it. It’s funny, one time I was performing and this guy from Guinea came over to me afterwards. He thought I was from Guinea, too, and neglecting our country by not dancing at the embassy and for ‘our’ people more. As he spoke, he got more excited and eventually starting cussing me out in his language. I said, ‘Look man, I am not African.’ He felt really embarrassed and apologized.
“I guess I just transform into someone different when I dance. It is like a spirit takes over me. One time, I was driving by the U.S. Capitol and they had the Zulu dancers performing. I was in the car with my wife and son. The drums captured me and I jumped out of the car while it was still moving to get to the music. My wife had to jump in the driver’s seat and take control of the car. I guess I just have it real bad for drums and dancing. My wish in life is to go to Africa and dance my heart out in Senegal and Guinea.
“I would say to everyone, you need to come up to the park and join us on Sundays. Who needs to pay for a class when you can come and dance with me and the drummers for free. Trust me, you aren’t going to find an experience like this anywhere else here.”
You can find Thomas and the drum circle in the upper area of Meridian Hill Park on Sunday afternoons.