Sankofa Dance Theater never has been sedentary. But the most nomadic year in its life is officially over Sunday, when Sankofa blesses its new home with a ceremony and performance.
"Our forte is the traditions of the African diaspora," says Kibibi Ajanku, co-director of Sankofa with her husband, Kauna Mujamal. But no one knew last fall, when it moved classes and rehearsals into the downtown YMCA, that Sankofa was about to embark on a little diaspora of its own.
Baltimore's African dance-theater company is accustomed to travel. Within the last month it has been to Washington (for an African dance festival at the Dance Place) and to New York (for the international DanceAfrica festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). Two years ago, it went on an artistic pilgrimage to Senegal.
But while its dancers and drummers can perform just about anywhere, Sankofa has been trying to hold not-so-portable classes in odd corners ever since the YMCA was closed by water damage from the sinkhole that collapsed the intersection of Franklin Street and Park Avenue last October.
In its nine years of existence, Sankofa has been all over the city. At first, it held classes on the stage of Northwestern High School; then at Dance Downtown's studio on Charles Street; then in a building at North and Druid Hill avenues; and then back downtown at the Morton Street Dance Center. For five years, it had a home in Dickeyville.
But its community is in Baltimore's inner city, and the Y was to be a convenient interim home until a more permanent space could be found.
Then came the yawning chasm in the street and the broken water main. And it all happened as Sankofa readied its performance at the Baltimore Museum of Art last fall. The program happened, but for several months, classes had to be postponed, rescheduled and moved to improvised sites.
"We spent the last year losing money," Ajanku says ruefully. Enrollment dropped to about 75 determined students.
In February, the company found a renovated warehouse on the "train end" of Falls Road, just north of Penn Station. It has scarred wood floors and I-bar pillars, and by Sunday it will have a new coat of paint and a collection of African masks on its walls. Then Sankofa will hold an open house for its extended family: dancers, drummers, children and adults, and the community.
At the center are Mujamal and Ajanku and her four children from a previous marriage: Jamila, 21, a lead dancer and a senior majoring in psychology at Howard University; Salim, 19, a drummer and a junior majoring in English at Morgan State University; Jumoke, 18, a drummer, entering Morgan State in the fall; and Shukura, 16, a dancer and the company's office manager, who will be a junior at Randallstown High School.
At any Sankofa event, Ajanku's mother, Susan King, and aunt, Margaret Taylor, will be there, proud hostesses and caretakers. At the fall BMA performance, Taylor ran the box office and sold T-shirts (which she designed) while King looked after one dancer's brand-new baby. The members of Sankofa include godchildren, cousins and friends and their cousins and friends.
All of this mirrors the larger African extended family that inspired Sankofa in the first place.
The company's symbol and namesake is the sankofa bird, pictured looking back over her shoulder at her young. "She reaches back to bring her young forward," says Ajanku. The bird stands for "remembering and rekindling our past roots and culture, which is what it takes for a community and a culture to have a strong future."
Ajanku comes from a family with firm African-American college ties: Her father was one of George Washington Carver's students at Tuskegee Institute. Mujamal's grandfather was a minister in Virginia. Both families are large and close, with annual reunions and, for Ajanku's folks, a common activity.
A dancer since she was a child, Ajanku is not sure when she went through "the transition where you realize it's more than a hobby -- it's what I do all the time!" But she knew her interest was in African dance after a class at her high school taught by Elio Pomare, a pioneer of African dance.
She joined Weusi Umoja, a now-defunct African dance company in Baltimore. She and Mujamal, who have been married 16 years, also have danced with Yatimbo and the Dance Menagerie. They worked longest with KanKouran, a troupe in Washington, dancing for its first seven seasons. Each company offered something different: Nigerian, Liberian, Senegalese dances and African-American interpretations of these cultures.
They worked, meanwhile, at a variety of jobs, from construction to secretarial, but more and more often as counselors for at-risk youth. (Mujamal still does, with a project called WinTeam.) "There was a need and a want" for cultural connections for these young people, says Ajanku. And with three students, Sankofa was born in 1989.
Out of its community classes, the company acquires its dancers and drummers. It now numbers 30 (20 dancers, 10 drummers) and performs dances of several Senegalese cultures, as well as Guinea, Liberia and the Caribbean.
The suppression of traditions of Africans brought to the Western hemisphere as slaves, the unwritten histories that disappeared with their tellers and the poor record-keeping of black communities until the civil-rights era have created huge problems for anyone trying to research African-American culture. Dance, the most unrecorded of the arts, is no different.
But African dance has, at least, a musical support system that helps preserve it. And Ajanku says that dancers sense what is valid by "what we feel drawn to in a magnetized kind of way."
Most African-Americans were brought from West Africa, but the region encompasses a vast number of tribes, cultures and languages. For dancers, however, who communicate with the body, what feels right usually is right: the beauty and flow of Senegalese dance, the driving nature of Guinean dance.
"When you go to Africa, you can see that the body types change," Ajanku says. "You can tell when you're forcing something. For me, I know what kind of dance fits very nicely on my body."
Sankofa artfully blends the discipline of drumming and movement with a zestful freedom in performance, pride in specific cultural traditions, and a pan-African delight in all forms of expression.
"There are many, many African-Americans who don't even know they come from Africa," says Ajanku. "But there has been a really big resurgence of people who find it necessary to find out. If you don't know where you've been, how can you know where you're going?"
Sankofa Dance Theater
What: Open house and performance
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: 1801 Falls Road
Admission: Donations accepted
Pub Date: 6/26/98