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Hardship disappears in beat of the dance floor

Under a rotating disco ball and steps from a clay pot sitting on fake flames, Congolese crooner Prince Fisecoze slams down a couple of shots of sambuca bar-side at the ritzy Club Afrique, the latest addition to Nairobi's otherwise edgy nightclub scene.
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Under a rotating disco ball and steps from a clay pot sitting on fake flames, Congolese crooner Prince Fisecoze slams down a couple of shots of sambuca bar-side at the ritzy Club Afrique, the latest addition to Nairobi's otherwise edgy nightclub scene.

Hoping to court some loyal fans, he flashes a business card to well-dressed patrons filing in around 10 p.m.. Printed in a hodgepodge of fonts, the card proclaims — in bold —that Prince Fisecoze Ikalaba M. Wembadio is president of Rumba Japan, an "international band with 6,600 dancing styles."

Minutes later, next to a babbling brook-and-waterfall installation, Prince sprays on some Paco Rabanne cologne for confidence. He smooths his wrinkled outfit, business attire from the waist down, Halloween party from the waist up: orange soccer shirt under a blue dinner jacket featuring an embroidered pumpkin on the lapel, a scarecrow on the back.

Pep talk - at least 1,000 dance moves tonight
As the crowd starts to search the stage around 10:30, Prince huddles with the 20 members of his band for a pep talk: They'll try to run through at least a thousand of their 6,600 dance moves, the band's zany claim to fame as advertised in newspapers and on posters.

"You can take a dance from anything in life," Prince boasts, displaying his latest invention, "dancing like someone who is dressed smart and doesn't want to get sweaty." He stiffens his back, lifts his chin and adjusts his imaginary tie to display the move.

"Never remove your eyes from the stage, ever," he tells some clubgoers. "You'll see every style we've mastered."

The wiry and dreadlocked lead guitarist, Gabrielle Nfianfia-Lubanzadio, 27, saunters over to the group. The left side of his face is shaved smooth. The right side has a perfectly groomed, well, half-beard. Why? "I love funny," he says in French-accented English from behind huge bug-shaped sunglasses studded with rhinestones.

Among his favorite dance moves: smoothing his hair and pretend-shaving.

Funny dance moves a coping mechanism
The band's style is known as Lingala, a big-band polyrhythmic style of African zydeco with Cuban flair that originated in Congo. Lingala dance moves range from the mimicry of the mundane — brushing teeth and eating — to overwrought displays of spirituality such as praying for spirits to come down from heaven. For the most part, if Lingala music had an underlying message, it would be, "Stop thinking. Dance."

And with good reason. Congolese have suffered through years of dictatorship and war. For them, finding humor is a way of coping.

So by 10:45 p.m., Rumba Japan unfurls a Japanese flag on stage -- the band's name comes from Rumba, slang for Lingala music, and Japan, actually a French acronym for a phrase that in English pretty much means: "Young artists loved by all in all categories, young and old."

"It's a very funny name," Prince says.

His songs are largely about his girlfriend and his admiration of poultry. "The chicken is an important bird, waking up man every morning," he says, just before climbing onto the stage.

Club Afrique is one of his favorite venues, because the club, like his band, is a melange of madcap styles. It has 1970s disco glitz — mirrored columns, lipstick-red trim and multicolored light screens. Many of the rooms have African themes, including Sahara Desert nomad and Lake Victoria village life. Two freezing air-conditioned rooms are for VIPs and "semi-VIPs."

'Heaven on earth'
At 10:50 p.m., Prince and three other singers step up to their microphones. The drummer starts up on the snare. The dancers burst onto the stage. The bongo player blows a whistle, like a drill instructor.

Dozens of couples shimmy onto the dance floor. Some start slowly, almost shyly, and then submit to the music. Hips are gyrating. Shoulders are shaking.

"This place is heaven on earth," coos Margaret W. Gitow, 24, as she glides by in a backless red polka-dot shirt and skintight white pants.

The dancers and band members on stage are hard at work displaying some of their 6,600 moves: Drinking Shots. Telephone Switchboard. Chicken Walk. Pounding Corn. Shoveling Dirt. One of the dancers bends over to tie her shoe, but it's unclear whether that's an actual dance move.

During a break, around midnight, buzzed patrons line up outside at the smoky grill as the aroma of hearty fare fills the air. Inside the joint, patrons order from waiters wearing red-and-white checkered shirts. Grilled chicken wings for the ladies, steaks and goat kabobs for the men. And for everyone, plenty of Tusker beer, Kenya's national brew. Warm.

The show climaxes at 1 a.m. as Congo Man, a dancer with bleached-white hair and a fur coat over a net shirt, Madonna- style, circa 1980s. He appears like a zombie set in motion by a supernatural force, twisting his body into weird shapes, spinning on his heels, punching the air and sometimes eating lit cigarettes.

"It's so funny," says Gitow, raising her arms above her head and shaking her hands to the beat. "I feel so free when I dance to Congolese."