Reverend Nafisa Shariff’s ministry thrives through West African dance and her love of rhythm – and she’s got plenty of both. The South Bronx native danced with Stevie Wonder during his anti-apartheid tours in the late 1980s.
I first heard about the Rev. in the fearful days after Election 2016, through her meditation conference calls. She guided me — and nameless others — through the breath as we sat in our individual homes in our pjs. As her golden voice bubbled live over the wires, I wondered: Who is this goddess in my phone?
In the last moments of the 30-minute call, the Reverend mentioned her upcoming live meditation called Dancing In The Light on Dec. 17. The conference call had been brilliant, cutting beyond screens into something more much intimate. What would meditation/dance class be like with her?
I meet Rev. Nafisa at Starbucks before her Monday event in Harlem. Dressed in spotless
white, from her head covering to sneakers poking beneath her long skirt, she didn’t just
stand out, she glowed. After enveloping me in a hug that smelled like tea roses, she offered to buy me coffee. As “fifth from the top” in a family of 13, she explained that sharing was in her DNA.
After we’d settled and sipped our coffee, she told me how she’d gotten started. “I often say my mother gave birth to me twice: once in my life and once in her death." In 2007, she became an ordained Minister through One Spirit Interfaith Seminary and has been wearing white since 2000. “The inspiration came in a meditation before I went to India,” she said. ‘Why do I have to wear white?’ I heard a very loud voice say, ‘Because it is the color of God.’ I never asked the question again.”
As we walked toward the gym of Countee Cullen/PS 194, she embraced people on the street. They knew her by name and her unique uniform. (I would like to wear one color to keep my closet simple. But for me, it would be purple.)
Inside the gym, Rev. Nafisa, 58, led a guided meditation that flowed into standing warmups. We were accompanied by six charismatic drummers. One dancer brought his four-year-old daughter who kept time with the other children. Older women danced, looking stately in brightly printed skirts.
"I always explain the traditional folklore from the ancient African Malian Empire so people understand what they are doing,” she told me. “You understand the music, the song and the reason why these movements exist. I try to relate it to the 21st century. What was it our ancestors did in the 12th century that is appropriate to us today?”
When it was time to go across the floor, Rev. Nafisa demonstrated moves that reminded me of river water. Another step involved jumping with high knees. Without a mirror, I was amazed I could complete these challenging sequences without feeling ridiculous. Eventually, Rev. Nafisa built up an impressive routine that ended when one of her former students — Ujijji Davis — threw herself in front of the drummers for one last ecstatic dance. The landscape architect, who now lives in Detroit, studied dance from Rev. Nafisa. She bowed before the musicians and Nafisa as she finished.
“It’s just wonderful to see what our children have become,” exclaimed a muscular drummer, his eyes bright and maybe a little teary. The gym erupted in applause. I left feeling like I had been to a church revival, without any guilt. It was wonderful.
Upcoming events include Dancing into the Light, an interfaith holiday celebration from 6 to 10 p.m., Sat., Dec. 17 at Hostos Community College, 450 Grand Concourse. To join her free 6 a.m. meditation conference calls, dial 712-775-7031 with the access code of 621968#. For more information on dance classes and her volunteer-based organization, click here.