The Women's Drum Center has been marching to its own beat for nearly 22 years.

Launched in an era when drumming was considered something that only men did, it offered a haven where women and girls could focus on rhythms without worrying about societal expectations. As time has eroded the taboo against female drummers -- although some argue that it's still not entirely gone -- the center has expanded to include sessions on drumming for health, a senior-citizen outreach program and sponsorship of a public performance ensemble.

"As far as we know, we're the only place of our kind in the country," said Marisa Cuneo-Linsly, who manages the nonprofit organization.

The membership is as diverse as the center's programs, ranging from Kathy Donohue, who had zero experience in drumming, to Emily Antin, who was a percussion major in college. They came looking for different things: Donohue wanted to learn basic drumming techniques, while Antin was looking to get back into performing. But everyone finds the same thing: a smile.

"You can be having the worst day ever, but once you start drumming, you can't remember what you were upset about," said Cheri Bunker, one of the center's instructors. "You're so focused on the drumming that you forget everything else."

Actually, you don't have time to think about anything else. No one gets by without participating. When a visitor dropped in to watch a recent class called "Women Who Groove," Cuneo-Linsly, who was leading the session, approached him with a rock shaker.

"If you're going to be in this room, you need to make noise," she said.

Business is booming, so to speak. For its entire existence, the center has been housed in the basement of an office building at 2242 W. University Av., St. Paul. The acoustics are great, but space is becoming a problem. In 2009, the center's classes drew 324 participants. Last year, that number swelled to 502, not counting 300 more who attended off-site workshops and another 43 who signed up for individual lessons.

"A big piece of our mission is to grow and expand," Cuneo-Linsly said. "The contribution that women are making to drumming itself is growing."

Keeping it comfortable

The center's original mission -- to create a stress-free environment for drumming -- still exists. Class members know that enthusiasm and dedication are valued over technical expertise.

"I love it here because it's so positive," said Alisa Mee, who started taking classes two years ago to augment her Irish fiddling. "It's not about performance. It's not about perfection. It's about community music. It's about coming together."

Easier said than done, the visitor quickly realized. Seeing him struggle with a complex Brazilian rhythm, Jill Beyer, who has been taking classes since May, offered advice. "Don't force it," she said. "Relax."

Nine students were in this class, which has been meeting weekly since fall. The session started with all nine doing the same rhythm on hand drums. As the beat picked up, drummers started splitting off into different rhythms and layers of sound, incorporating various types of drums, bells and even a whistle.

"Feel the pulse," urged Cuneo-Linsly, who by day is a personal trainer and is well versed in the art of maintaining a steady stream of upbeat patter. "Feel the speed."

For the players, it's all about feeling good.

"I love the way the group comes together," said Pam Newsome, who has been taking classes for a year. "That group energy is so wonderful."

Completing the circle

Originally called Drumming Our Fill, the center was launched in 1989 by Colleen Haas, a musician who ran it as a for-profit business until she left the Twin Cities in 1996.

She turned over the studio to a performing group called DrumHeart, which reincorporated as a nonprofit and changed its name to DrumHeart Studio. In 2001, the name was changed again to the Women's Drum Center.

Cuneo-Linsly became the center's manager in 2008, an appointment that represented the center coming full circle. She's the first nonprofessional musician to head the organization. In fact, she started out as one of its students.

"I walked in here 15 years ago not knowing a thing about drums," she said. "I always wanted to drum, but when women my age -- 50 -- were girls, drumming wasn't something we were encouraged to do."

She pooh-poohs the notion that some people lack a sense of rhythm.

"We just go back to the heartbeat," she said. "Everybody's got rhythm because every body has a pulse. We just have to start slow [with lessons] and allow people to stay in their comfort zone."

The women don't do all their drumming in the basement. Every May, a contingent of drummers offers rhythmic support to runners in the Race for the Cure, and every October they set up at the Twin Cities Marathon. They march in the State Fair parade and take part in community gatherings, with last year's list including ones in Anoka, Lakeville, White Bear Lake, Maplewood and Minneapolis' Bryn Mawr neighborhood.

And they're always looking for new activities. In the plans for this year is a Nov. 5 concert of drum-set players.

"My dream is that we'll have every generation of women represented from age 5 to 95," Cuneo-Linsly said. "It will be a history of women drummers."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392