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Beat of a Different Drummer

Vienna resident leads drumming circles.

While many people have boxes of old magazines and clothes in their basements, Cheryl Patton Wu has something more eclectic. Arranged neatly in the basement of her Vienna home is a 40-odd assortment of drums and percussion instruments of all sizes and shapes: djembes, ngomas, ashikos, congas, djun-djuns, surdos, cowbells, shakers, chimes and rainsticks.

Wu facilitates drum circles and teaches drumming to area residents. The drums are part of a lifelong love of music, which started with tap-dancing lessons at age 5 and polka music played in her grandmother's living room.

"I was raised on strong rhythmic music," Wu said.

The drum circles, called “full circle rhythms,” bring beginning and advanced drummers for evenings of jamming on the drums.

"To me, drumming is about the rhythm, not the drum," said LaVon Hartman of Falls Church, who attends Wu's drumming workshop for women. "The first time you get that you are not drumming the rhythm, and the rhythm is drumming you, is just awesome."

Wu's interest in drums began in high school, when she was in the marching band. Because she was a girl, the only acceptable percussion instrument she could play was the glockenspiel.

"I really wanted to play timpani, but I never got the chance because it was in the male domain," Wu said.

After getting bachelor's and master's degrees in the visual arts, Wu moved to Boston, where she took up rhythmic tap-dancing and Argentine tango. She met her second husband through the tango class, and they moved to Palo Alto, Calif., when her husband received a job offer there.

In California, Wu became entranced by the drumming circles that would form on the beach. She started drumming classes after watching a drumming circle perform at a local health-care conference.

"I was hooked," Wu said.

UNTIL WU got her first drum as a present from her husband, she would practice drumming on the kitchen table. Once she got her drum, she went to workshops led by Arthur Hull, known as a founder in the community drum circle movement. At those workshops, as many as 1,000 people could be drumming simultaneously in a circle.

"I was so amazed by that, and so fascinated by what he did," Wu recalled.

When her family moved to Northern Virginia, Wu sought drum circles in the area while also attending workshops in Maryland and Hawaii. When she couldn't find a drum circle nearby, a friend suggested she start one herself by becoming a drum circle facilitator.

"To bring it to people who wouldn't necessarily do it is so empowering and joyful," Wu said. Of the "playshop" in Hawaii in 2001, Wu added, "It was one of those epiphanies. This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."

As Wu was wrapping up her facilitation training, she began collecting drums and other percussion instruments. In addition to organizing classes, workshops and drumming sessions, Wu also facilitated drumming circles for area elementary schools and businesses. She facilitated a drum circle for Vienna's July Fourth festivities in 2001.

"It's tap-dancing using your hands instead of your feet. It allows people to dialogue with one another," Wu said. "There's no learning curve. ... You could plop 20 people here who've never touched percussion, and I could have them playing in 10 minutes. And that's the magic of the drum."

FOR 2004, Wu hopes to expand her workshops, which began in 2003. So far, Wu facilitates a Friday evening drumming circle and a women's workshop. She recently hosted a mystery party that incorporated a drumming circle.

The drummers who have participated in Wu's workshops have heard about them through e-mail and word of mouth. What attracts them is the community and connection that arises from drumming together.

"It brings the rhythm out of me, and somehow connects me to something much larger," said Judith Harroun-Lord of Burke. A technical editor and writer, Harroun-Lord has been drumming for five years and is part of the women's drumming circle.

Another women's circle participant, psychologist Patricia Paraja of Fairfax, agreed.

"I'm having so much fun! I can feel it in my body. It's amazing," Paraja said.

That excitement thrills Wu, who wants non-musicians and musicians alike to experience drumming.

"I just love helping people to find the opportunity to express their individuality, to find their joy," Wu said. "Every indigenous culture has used drumming and percussion. I think rhythms are in every single person. ... We are so serious about so many things. We're so rushed. What drumming allows you to do is be in the moment and breathe and relax and let go. And play."