September 15, 2011

Meet Me in the Circle: The Language of Drum Circle Sundays. ~ Alyssa Schimmel

Photo: Mr. T in DC

Even beneath a tree, many feet away, I can feel the ground shaking with percussive tremors. Sundays in DC, people parade in from across the city and converge upon Meridian Hill Park for the drum circle – a popular city fixture and communal, circus-like engagement in play. The circle-goers are as diverse as the instruments through which they converse: bongos, tin flutes, hula-hoops, old rusty cans picked up from the street corner and propped on a knee.

After a couple weekends of extreme monsoon rains ushered in by unwelcome hurricanes, there’s an added feeling of fortune infusing the day’s fair-weather display, as the circle grows in drips and drabs beyond its benches. There’s a feeling of having come home to some shared ritualistic understanding – like how when the weather finally lets up from overwhelming humidity or days of darkness, everyone seems nicer, somehow, subtly thankful and reborn into a peculiar patience. It becomes our small talk when we don’t know what else to say.

On the circle outskirts, a frail older woman in a wheelchair waves incense with purpose, the smoke coiling above her snaking shoulders.

Photo: Vanessa Pike-Russell

I had been to the drum circle many times before, but last Sunday on the anniversary of September 11th, I wandered to the park alone, having been too late for a yoga class, and too tired to trek home, and too caught up in my singularity.

I moseyed behind the pebbled stone partition bordering the circle when an older man, all gums, turns to me – eyes aglow, and says, “Baby! I’ve seen you here so many times but we’ve never spoken until today. How ‘bout that? You havin’ a good time?” He’s shiny with sweat and wearing a royal blue muscle shirt as I’ve seen in him in so many times before. From time to time, he’ll stand up in the middle of the circle, his voice caught like a bottle in the current, and yell with a toad-like rasp, “Give it all you got!” He’s overly enthusiastic and out-of-breath.

Photo: See-ming Lee

He introduces himself as Uncle Willie, cackling, and we fist bump. He tells me, proudly, he’s 74 and has been coming to the drum circle for years, and that his goal, ‘God help him,’ is to meet and have a conversation with everyone who comes to the park. I compliment him on this admirable aspiration, looking at the circle out across the field of Frisbee players, jugglers and acro-yogis, young parents, people reading, people nodding off to sleep – and think how sizable.

I wonder – looking at him – and then to myself – what it is that keeps us enlivened and connected? That levels us and absorbs us all in our shared humanness? This is at the core of my practice – my yoga practice, my life practice. All the while, new people saunter up, making space for themselves and their drum and begin playing in their unique expression, welcomed. The music ripples out. We count off.


Alyssa Schimmel is a DC-based yogi who first discovered the practice through a dollar-bin VHS tape of a long-haired Bryan Kest. Since then, her practice has deepened across multiple traditions and she now works in DVD marketing for a yoga and fitness line. When she’s off the mat, she’s exploring human connectivity and health & wellness through cooperative living, experiments in gift economy, story-telling, Thai yoga therapy, and fermenting foods through her small-scale product line, Well-Bread and Cultured. She can be reached by email at [email protected].


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