Cultural dance groups connect Baltimoreans to their heritage, new traditions

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A twirl of color, the beat of a drum. An evening at Jihan Von Hendricks’ African dance class is mesmerizing, energizing and it proves her motto: Everyone in the village can dance.

Von Hendricks, 43, might not have Senegalese heritage, but West African culture is part of her being. The Pikesville resident learned the dances that she teaches at the Eubie Blake Center on North Howard Street from former members of the country’s national ballet.


“I’ve done it all of my life. My children grew up in it. My sister and I danced during our pregnancies with big ol’ bellies,” said Von Hendricks, who leads Keur Khaleyi African Dance Company.

Keur Khaleyi, which means “house of children” in the West African Wolof language, is among Baltimore’s many cultural dance groups, made up of performers who use movement and music to connect to their heritage, share it with others or experience a tradition different from their own.


To Von Hendricks, valuing the culture means as much as having the heritage — she welcomes people of all ethnicities and backgrounds to practice dances that originated in Senegal, Mali and Guinea.

The reasons for each dance — celebrations, tragedies, ceremonies — are perhaps as important as the footwork.

“They all have different costumes because each of these dances mean different things and is done for different things,” she said. “It could be an initiation dance, could be a fire dance, could be a harvesting dance.”

The group performs at private events and at festivals including Baltimore County’s African American Cultural Festival in September.

Other cultural dance groups are primarily exercise classes.

Natalie Burrowes started Soca’Robics to share the magic of Caribbean dance music.

“All the different islands have their own style of Soca music. Soca is the kind of music you listen to it and it motivates you,” said Burrowes, 41, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica when she was 11.

At her fitness studio, she shares her love of dance with other Islanders and plenty of Americans ranging from teens to 70-year-olds.


“A lot of them come not knowing what Soca music is, but they fall in love with it. Every year when we do the [Baltimore Caribbean] Carnival, we have a lot of Americans who perform because they’ve fallen in love with it,” said the Pikesville resident.

Similarly, the Yong Han Lion Dance Troupe at Johns Hopkins University collects a wide range of members who experience the dance and are hooked. Lion Dance is native to China and several other Asian countries, but club co-president Celine Arpornsuksant said her Thai heritage had little to do with her reasons for joining.

“I joined because it seemed cool, and I stuck with it,” said the 21-year-old student from Atlanta.

During the dance’s often prescribed set of moves, two people work together as the head and tail of a lion. Several students play the gong and the cymbals while one or two lions sniff a head of Romaine lettuce placed in front of the audience. The group is often asked to perform at weddings and special events.

“The lions ‘eat’ the lettuce by ripping it in the head and throwing it into the crowd to symbolize good luck,” Arpornsuksant said. “The green symbolizes wealth and money which is why people like to have lion dance at New Years.”

The club teaches a new group of 12-15 each year as students cycle through.


In Pikesville, Russian dance company Kalinka sees far less turnover: The dedicated group shares a cultural and familial bond.

Katya Denisova, a Baltimore science teacher and the group’s founder, first came to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia, as an exchange student in 1997.

The Owings Mills resident started Kalinka in 2002 hoping to find others who loved the dances of her childhood in the Soviet Union.

“We were popular among Americans, but the Russian community didn’t want anything to do with us because we were the symbol of this old country from which most of these people fled,” said Denisova, 43.

As a kid, Denisova practiced the popular Soviet style called traditional Russian dance: stylized, choreographed folk moves combined with ballet and often performed to traditional folk songs played on orchestral instruments.

“The whole Soviet symbolism had a lot to do with common people, so the Soviet era really lifted this whole style of dance,” she said. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, it went out of fashion.”


Many of the kids in Denisova’s Tuesday night class are Americans born to Russian parents.

“My friends come a lot to concerts because they usually do hip-hop or ballet so they see how it’s kind of similar to ballet,” said 13-year-old Julia Hidar, whose mother practiced the style of dance in Russia and Uzbekistan. “It’s something different, so not everyone thinks it’s normal, but I don’t care. It’s awesome. It’s what I love to do.”

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Performing in Kalinka’s showcases holds family value for the middle schooler from Reisterstown.

Denisova is proud to see that, in Russia, folk culture is making a comeback. She used to make up Kalinka’s dances in her head. Now, YouTube is filled with choreographies. Despite icy diplomatic relations, her Russian dance group is becoming more popular. Audiences can see Kalinka perform 30 times a year.

“Its just a reminder for us that cultures are cultures and languages are languages,” she said. “We should continue learning it despite political climate.”

If you go:

Keur Khaleyi African Dance Company is set to perform Sept. 15 at the Baltimore County African American Cultural Festival held annually at the Towson Courthouse Plaza. Free.


Soca’Robics holds daily classes at the studio located on 2603 N. Rolling Road #305 in Windsor Mill. $8 for drop-in classes.

Yong Han Lion Dance Troupe is set to perform at the Johns Hopkins University Annual Culture Show 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center. Free.

Kalinka is scheduled to perform 1 p.m. on Oct. 20 and 12:45 p.m. Oct. 21 during the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church Annual Russian Festival at 1723 E. Fairmount Ave. $2.