Family Brings West African Dance to American City

26 October, 2018

In West Africa, dancing is an important part of many family traditions.

An ocean away, in the United States, a German-Jamaican-American family has made performing those dances part of their tradition.

Keur Khaleyi brings West African dance performances and classes to Baltimore. (Keur Khaleyi)
Keur Khaleyi brings West African dance performances and classes to Baltimore. (Keur Khaleyi)

Their family name is Von Hendricks. Six years ago, two sisters and their brother formed an African dance company. They named it "Keur Khaleyi," which means the House of Children in Wolof, a language in Senegal.

The group is based in the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore, Maryland. Its members perform in local and national festivals. They also recently set up a school to teach dance moves to others.

At first, the dance company was made up of two dancers, sisters Jihan and Ayana, and their brother Shakai, who played the drum. Soon, two younger family members joined them. Later, a sister-in-law joined the group.

The family performs dances from Senegal, Mali and Guinea, but has no family ties to those places.

My grandfather was German and my grandmother was from Jamaica, Jihan Von Hendricks told VOA. She said her interest in dance started when she was a child. Her parents made her attend an African dance school. She learned a few dance moves, then taught her brother and sister. In time, the West African culture became part of who they were.

"My heart really is with Senegal," Jihan added.

There, she said, people dance for all kinds of reasons: to play with children; to honor a woman before she is married; to mark the end of the harvest.

Her brother, Shakai, says his heart is also with Senegal. He loves African drumming. "Ever since I saw it when I was 10, I was hooked," he remembers.

Performing together strengthens family ties and fuels creativity. Shakai added "Our parents knew what they were doing. They put us into this at a young age to keep us together."

"My happy place"

The Von Hendricks family uses the dance company to keep generations close.

Jihan's daughter, 13 year old Diallo, dances and plays the drum with the group. 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 music, the costumes and the feeling of accomplishment.

Dancing is "my happy place," Diallo said.

The Von Hendricks share their joy and knowledge with their neighbors in Baltimore.

One of their students is a 71-year old hair stylist, Shakoorah El Sharief. She learned many African dances in the past, but says she likes West African dances best.

"I love everything about it," she says. "It's like my medicine."

The Von Hendricks' dream is to teach more members of their community and family about West African dances and drumming.

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this story for Learning English from VOA. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

festival - n. an organized series of performances

drum - n. a musical instrument that is made with a thin layer of skin or plastic stretched over the end of a round frame and that is played by hitting the skin or plastic with sticks or with your hands

hooked - adj. very interested in and enthusiastic about something

stylist - n. a person whose job is to make something look attractive