Finding the beat with 1st Stop Woodlawn’s Rhythm Riders

YWCA Toronto
YWCA Toronto
January 17, 2020
Categories: Feminism Housing & Shelter 

When my colleagues at YWCA Toronto’s 1st Stop Woodlawn Shelter first invited me to come and see their drumming group in action, I imagined I’d be quietly observing, taking notes – all the things I’m used to doing as a writer. That’s not quite how it went…

Within seconds of arriving, Zena, a community support worker at 1st Stop and the group’s instructor, had me sitting in front of an African Djembe drum, trying desperately to follow the rhythm my neighbours were so confidently beating out, and feeling completely out of place.

Forty-five minutes later, I was enthusiastically leading the group in a rhythm of my own and wishing I could stay for another two hours! What was behind my transformation?

My new-found confidence was partly due to the patience and encouragement of the staff at 1st Stop, who helped me, and everyone else, feel at ease. That’s important, because many of the women living in the shelter or in a permanent room at 1st Stop are vulnerable, coping with complex challenges and unaddressed trauma.

Zena, who led the group, is a wonderful teacher. When a woman staying in the shelter came to sit with us halfway through the session, adamant she could not join in because of a mobility issue, Zena supported her in finding an alternative way to play the drum and be a crucial part of the ensemble. Vivienne, another support worker at 1st Stop, was also on hand to encourage and lift everyone’s spirits – even treating us to a dance while we played!

I was also immediately boosted by the support of the rest of the Rhythm Riders. Some of the women in the drumming group have been attending for years, while others – like me – were brand new to it. It was amazing to see these women inspire and uplift each other.

The group helps women to develop a new skill, but it’s not just about learning a set drumming pattern and playing it back. Each participant is empowered to find their own rhythm and share it with the group, developing confidence, communication and leadership skills that have a positive impact far beyond this single session. Staff told me they can see real improvements in relationships between women after they have taken part in the drumming group. There’s less confrontation and less tension all round.

I can understand that. It’s a relief to be able to communicate in a way that doesn’t require words. Whether frustration or excitement, the drum provides an outlet for emotions that can be difficult to express without becoming overwhelmed or causing friction with others. For some of the women in the group who are nonverbal or dealing with significant trauma, the chance to express themselves through music is even more powerful. 

It’s that feeling – of freedom, of liberation – that really captivated me during my hour with the drumming group. Something about following the beat helped me forget about the reams of emails waiting for me back at the office and the argument I had with my partner that morning. As one of the other participants explained it, you can’t feel the rhythm if you are worrying about other things. You have to empty your mind and just be in the moment. And it’s true – the instant my brain wandered to its usual place of fret I lost the beat and found myself out of step with the rest of the group.

And so I surrendered to the beat of the drum. There’s pure joy in sharing music with others who are also completely in the moment, in communicating through rhythm and in harmonizing with a group of strong and fearless women. At the end of the session I felt somehow physically lighter. Zena was right – drumming really is good for the soul.

For more information about YWCA Toronto’s transformative programming, or to donate, please visit

By Rachael Plant, Philanthropy Writer at YWCA Toronto