Dancing through the beat of the drum

Sandy Blocker is the University Accompanist at Elon University who plays world percussion instruments for modern, ballet and African dance classes. His professional training in ballet when he was younger makes him very in tune, and an ideal accompanist for the dance students and professors within the dance department.

Sandy Blocker was told he couldn’t chase his dreams because he was white. As a senior about to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BFA in Dance, Blocker attended the first class to really change his life.

“A friend of mine invited me to watch his African Dance class,” Blocker said. “I just watched, not the dancers, but the (African) drummer,” Hashim Sali, whom Blocker afterwards approached. He wanted to learn to play the drums like Sali, who immediately told him “no” because he was white and didn’t know enough about Africa. Blocker was too hooked to accept “no” for an answer.

They made a deal—Sali gave Blocker three months to learn something about Africa. Blocker walked back into the African Dance class exactly three months later and walked out as Sali’s new accompanist-in-training.

“I went back with more information than he was ready for me to put on him,” Blocker said. Within a few semesters, he became the staff accompanist for UNCG’s dance department, which paved the altered career path that ensued.

Blocker playing the djembe during his time as the staff accompanist at UNCG. Video courtesy of UNCG’s dance department.

Balletic background

Blocker stretches in between songs during a modern dance class at Elon, taught by Jason Aryeh.

Blocker had been trained from an early age as a classical dancer. At age 18 he moved to Virginia to study ballet with the School of Norfolk Ballet before receiving a scholarship to move to New York to study with the Joffrey Ballet School. He studied in Virginia during the school years and spent his summers in New York during this two-year period of intense balletic training. After finishing his last summer in New York, he joined the Houston Ballet, where he danced for a year before electing to take a break from dance to give his body, and mind, a rest. This brought him to the decision to earn a college degree—something he had not previously had the chance to do.

In 1988, he moved to Greensboro, NC to attend UNCG, going back to the city where he was raised. After graduating with a BFA in Dance, Blocker remained on staff at UNCG to accompany the dance classes as he continued to learn more about the art of world percussion drumming.

Africa calling

Dancers from Les Ballet Africains. Photo courtesy of danceforpower.org.

But as time went on, Sali’s words rang in his ears, and Africa was calling. He left for Guinea and Senegal in 1995 for what would be the first of several trips back across the Atlantic.

“I went to study in Guinea, West Africa with Les Ballets Africains—the national ballet of Guinea—for two months,” said Blocker. “I lived with the dancers and the drummers—I studied with them.”

Two years later in 1997, Blocker went to Mali to study the djembe with the indigenous Malian people. The djembe is a specific type of African drum, rope-tuned and skin-covered, played with bare hands, thought to have originated from the ancient Mali Empire.

The djembe, center, is a popular type of African drum believed to be indigenous to Mali.

This trip to Mali was an intense learning experience for Blocker as a musician, who felt he needed a more authentic comprehension to ground and define himself as a genuine world percussionist. The next time he traveled back served more than just an educational purpose—it doubled as his honeymoon.

A musical duo

Blocker met his wife, Angie Greene, in the African Dance class he accompanied for at UNCG. Greene was a rising sophomore pursuing a career in dance education and a student in the class. The two became friends and started to date over the next couple of years, as they were both further developing their craft. They each followed their perspective paths together to Bamako, Mali to study and live with the people who could teach them best.

The couple stayed at a Protestant mission with a European style bathroom and kitchenette, air-conditioning that they paid for by the hour and filtered water.

Blocker's hands have become tough and leathered over the past couple decades of playing the drums.

“I was not very into camping or roughing it, and there was no way I was going to stay on the compound (in a straw hut) everyday,” Greene said. But Greene, who now teaches contemporary and African dance at Eastern Guilford High School, Burlington Academy of Dance & Arts and the Greensboro Ballet, felt she needed to see as much firsthand authentic African dancing as possible if she was going to be teaching it one day. Like Blocker, her studies in the U.S. had not yet been enough.

They filled up their water bottles with filtered water from the mission and took public transportation through Bamako across the Niger River to the compound where they studied every day for three weeks. Blocker studied with the drummers and Greene with the dancers.

Before heading home, Blocker and Greene went to Morocco and Casablanca for Blocker to study other styles of drumming. In combination with the skills he had picked up from this trip and the ones prior to it, Blocker had become a multi-talented and well-versed world percussionist, adding instrument upon instrument to his resume, ranging from the djembe to the juice harp to the mandolin, among many others.

“I do a lot of different types of drumming, all from different cultures,” Blocker said. “I do a lot of West African drumming, but I’ve also learned North African and Egyptian styles, Middle Eastern and Indian styles, and I can play music from Cuba and Brazil.”

Transition to Elon

Blocker remained on staff at UNCG as the accompanist for 19 years before budget cuts caused him to lose his job. Luckily, through a connection at Elon University, Blocker found out about the need for an accompanist in their dance department.

Sara Tourek, associate professor of Dance in Elon’s Performing Arts Department, met Blocker in graduate school at UNCG where she was a student in a class he accompanied for. When she heard Elon was looking for an accompanist, she immediately thought of Blocker, with whom she had become better friends with during her time as a UNCG dance student.

“He had a good sense of humor, and a clear background in dance that allowed him to connect with the dancers and play in tune with them,” Tourek said. “He provided exactly what the instructor wanted for every class, which really stood out from other accompanists.”

Blocker (far left) with Jason Aryeh (front row center) and his students in Modern I at Elon University.

She knew he’d be a perfect fit for Elon’s tight-knit performing arts department, where he would be able to have plenty of artistic freedom. Lauren Kearns, the chair of Elon’s dance department, hired Blocker in August of 2011. As the University Accompanist, he plays the drums for the upper-level ballet, modern and African dance classes, and often times for out-of-class performances.

Blocker is considered somewhat of a rarity in the dance accompanist world. Many accompanists stick to one style or one genre of dance, but Blocker knows how to cater to ballet classes, serving as a driving force for the students.

“We really like having his perspective and voice here,” said Tourek, who said she especially enjoys working with him since they have a performance background together. “He is really open to trying new things in the classroom, and to lending his talents.”

Blocker (foreground) drumming for a modern dance class in which Carly Flynn (background) is a student.

Dance major, junior Carly Flynn, enjoys the unique musical experience Blocker brings to her various dance classes. The dancers had only previously worked with an accompanist who mostly played piano, so learning how to move in tune to the beat of Blocker’s drums has been a fun and interesting adjustment, Flynn said.

“He’s very in tune with us as dancers, and very aware of our movement due to his personal dance background,” Flynn said. “He even gives us great feedback about our dancing—supposedly he’s an amazing ballet partner!”

Flynn has worked with Blocker beyond just the boundaries of the classroom. As the director of Tapped Out!, the annual Winter Term student-run-and-directed tap show, Flynn quickly saw how willing Blocker was to give the dancers as much as he could offer. He would drive in (from Greensboro) mornings and evenings to rehearse with the dancers, and he collaborated extensively on a piece for the show with tap professor Gene Medler.

“Sandy is pretty amazing,” Flynn said. “In his piece with Gene, Sandy created rhythms and beats on the drums, which Gene then turned into tap moves. (Sandy) pushed us further to go off of his rhythms, not just to mimic them, to help us create more interesting sounds.”

Heart and soul

Blocker loves being able to help people find music and connect to it through movement.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I get to play drums, watch dancers dance, and am challenged all the time by (adjusting to) the way people want to put movement to music. It’s really wonderful because I have a kinetic sense with the music. I have to dance it inside myself as I’m playing.”

He is also able to further apply his more creative side through performing with Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands, a dark yet whimsical, ethereal folk band based out of Greensboro for which Blocker plays percussion as one of Crystal Bright’s “Silver Hands.”

Blocker and Bright met in 2001 at UNCG, where Blocker taught Bright African drumming. Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands formed in 2010—Bright is the lead singer and performer, multi-talented as she simultaneously plays the accordion. The other members of the band, or Silver Hands, as Bright refers to them, play a wide variety of offbeat instruments to add to her very eclectic, otherworldly sound.

Blocker provides a world percussion twist to Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands.

As a versatile world percussionist, Blocker contributes African, Middle Eastern and South American rhythms to the band by adding sounds from various percussion instruments such as the riqq, djembe and conga drums, the kick drum and cymbals.

“(Sandy) is a very versatile and amazing musician,” Bright said. “He is so great with odd rhythms, throat singing and jaw harp…and is a great travel partner! He adds a world percussion flavor to the band and has great ideas that I normally wouldn’t think of.”

According to those that interact with Blocker, his character and spirit are some of his greatest trademarks, aside from his musical talents.

“Sandy is a great friend and collaborator—he keeps me grounded,” Bright said. “He is very thoughtful, open-minded and funny.”

Blocker on his set of drums, creates beats and rhythms that cater to the needs of the dance professor's needs and combinations.

Elon’s dance department has taken note as well, with students and professors both citing him as a truly special and wonderful addition to their community.

“It is so much fun to have him (at Elon) and watch him play,” Tourek said. “His spirit is always really true to himself.”

At home, Blocker fathers four children and maintains a flourishing garden with his wife and kids.

“We have a really nice garden (with) potatoes, onions, oregano, dill, cabbage, lettuce and other greens,” Blocker said.

Blocker’s two eldest sons, Buck, 21, and Joe, 19, have found a path resonant with their father’s.

“Joe, a great world percussionist and a good drum-set player, is an accompanist at UNCG now,” Blocker said. “Buck has been helping him out – Buck’s the ultimate rocker.”

As for the little ones, Sadie, 8, and Luke, 5, they love to watch their daddy drum and dance around with him. Music and dance are treasured values in their household, as it has served them well.

As someone who grew up only hearing Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong for the longest time before finally having The Beatles introduced to him, Blocker is a huge advocate for turning people on to new music.

“I’m not an obscure artist,” he insisted. “I’m just a person.”

Sandy Blocker is one man with a slew of talents who has managed to stay grounded and lovely spirited by finding happiness through the beat of his own drums.

2 thoughts on “Dancing through the beat of the drum

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