In West Africa, as in other parts of the continent, dancing is an important part of traditions. An ocean away, in Baltimore Maryland, a multi-generational family has made performing those dances part of their tradition.
All In the Family
The Von Hendricks founded an African dance company six years ago. They named it “Keur Khaleyi”, which means the House of Children in Wolof, a language in Senegal.
The company originally featured sisters Jihan and Ayana dancing, and their brother, Shakai, on the drum. Soon, they were joined by two members of a second generation, and later, a sister-in-law. The family performs dances from Senegal, Mali and Guinea, although that is not part of their heritage.
"My granddad was German and my grandma was Jamaican,” Jihan, who also serves as the company's art director, says.
It all started when Jihan's parents enrolled her in an African dance school, where she picked up moves and got her siblings interested. Over the years, the West African culture became part of their identity.
"That's why my heart really is with Senegal because those were the dances I learned,” Jihan says. “They all have different meanings, children play dance, dances done the night before the bride gets married, harvesting dances. So, these dances all have meanings."
Her brother Shakai’s heart is also with Senegal. He loves African drumming. "Ever since I saw it when I was 10, I was hooked,” he recalls. “(It's) like the sound of the drum had just caught my attention. I was like 'Wow I need to get into that.' It took about a year for my Mom to find a company. It became something I do every day. "
Performing together strengthens family ties and sparks creativity.
"You're bouncing off your each other's energy,” he adds. “It's really good. It just made us tighter and tighter. It made it an unbreakable bond between us. It's great. Our parents knew what they were doing. They put us into this at a young age to keep us together."
"My happy place"
Thirteen-year old Diallo, one of the second-generation company members, dances and plays the drum. She started dancing when she was 18 months old. She says it helped her develop social skills and make friends. She likes everything about performing: the lively music, the costumes and the sense of achievement it gives her.
"Costumes are very comfortable,” she says. “They're very bright and pretty. I really like it and I love dancing. It made me who I am. I grew up with it. It's my happy place. I get to express my emotions when I'm dancing."
Her mother, Jihan, says integrating younger members of the family into the company comes naturally, as they are exposed to dancing and drumming since early childhood. "We take them to conferences,” she says. “We have workshops, we bring in master dancers and drummers. So, they're always exposed to it."
Dance as Medicine
The Von Hendricks dance in local and national festivals, and recently started a school to teach the moves to others. Offering classes brings dancing to a larger family, the Baltimore community.
Seventy-one-year old hair stylist, Shakoorah El Sharief is one of the students. She learned many other African dances in the past, but says she likes West African dances best. "I love everything about it. I love the drumming. I love moving with the music, it energizes me. It's so healing. It's very healing to the mind, the body and the soul, everything. It’s like my medicine."
The Von Hendricks' dream is to teach more members of their community about West African dances, and expose the youngest members of the family to their dancing and drumming traditions. That promises to keep the family dancing for many generations to come.