Miami's Venus Rising Challenges Gender Roles Through Drum and Dance

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The past week's fracturing of the political climate and escalation of dangerous rhetoric against marginalized groups across the country has left many wondering how to heal the wounds between neighbors and friends and even within ourselves in the aftermath of an unprecedented election season.

Talk of self-care and building community through supportive groups that now feel threatened is permeating our social media feeds, but too often that's where it stops. If we are to convert these intentions into a new consciousness, we should start by looking to those people in our community for whom this week has been just another battle in a war waged for decades.

For Zeva Soroker of the Venus Rising Women's Drum and Dance Ensemble, self-care and community-building happens every Saturday, when her troupe meets to rehearse at the Goddess Store and Studio in Hollywood, Florida. 

“I studied feminist theory," Soroker says. "I've always been a proponent of women coming together and empowering each other."

After drumming in different ensembles for about a decade, Soroker felt a calling to create a space designed specifically for women to drum in the West African tradition she'd come to know and love. “In this world of West African drumming and dancing, usually the men were drumming and the women were dancing, but I was called to the drums.”

As with most pioneering endeavors, her efforts were initially met with some resistance. She remembers being in a drum circle in New Orleans and having one man in particular protest her role as a drummer. “Well, I can't start the class until she takes that drum from out between her legs because that's sacrilegious, and we just can't have that,” she remembers the man saying.

That was in the late '90s. Around 2000, she traveled to the West African nation of Guinea and found a much different experience. Her male peers were encouraging, even downright excited to see Soroker challenge the traditional gender roles. “It was more like, ‘Oh, awesome! Great! Let's play together!’” 
Shortly afterward, she went on to found Venus Rising in 2003 with two other women. Today, the ensemble consists of nearly 20 women and continues to grow in both membership and musical scope.

“African [drumming] is our foundation, but my vision and where we're headed is to do almost like a world cultural tour — so we do African, we do Caribbean, we do a little Middle Eastern, and right now a little Brazilian. We have one or two South American pieces, but I just hope that we can continue to expand. I love the idea of seeing women play not just the traditional percussion instruments that people are familiar with but a whole array."

Venus Rising's wide range of musical styles can be heard on the debut recording Rhythm Blessings, for which the troupe has also launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. The album features ten of the ensemble members playing Jamaican, Haitian, Liberian, West-African, and Afro-Brazilian rhythms.

Soroker admits translating her group's live performance onto a recording was intimidating at first, and crowdfunding continues to be a learning experience. “We have quite a few members who are over 50 years old. Sometimes, it's a little bit more of a challenge to be learning all these brave new worlds at 50 versus 20, 30, or 40.

“One of our most beloved members just moved back to Jamaica. She was our uber-matriarch at like 65 years old — just out there, really dancing up a storm. That's part of our message: Look at us women doing it all. Different ages, we're from all different cultures, we're from all different backgrounds, and yet we come together and put something uplifting together.”

That's precisely what Soroker and Venus Rising plan to do when they take over the R.E.D. Stripe Cafe and Lounge on Saturday night for the album release party performance.

“We’re going to do a couple sets featuring some of the music from the CD and a couple pieces that aren't on the CD. It's a party. We're excited to share and want to just bask in the glow.”

Venus Rising Women's Drum and Dance Ensemble. 6 p.m. Saturday, November 19, at R.E.D. Stripe Cafe and Lounge, 2001 Harrison St., Hollywood; 954-818-0885; Admission is free at the door.

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