Jumping and twisting their bodies, the African dancers seem more like pulses than performers, colorful animations of the drumming that surges like a river through the old mill building in Dickeyville.
As they are lifted and swept by currents of sound, these dancers are a reminder of how little separates artists from the source of their art.
"African dance opens you up to become the art," says Kibibi Ajanku, a principal dancer with Sankofa Dance Theatre. "In Africa, traditionally, there's no break between life and art. We don't make a painting to hang on the walls, the painting is the house. The carving is the salad bowl.
"To do what we do in this art form is to live it. Our drummers have to become drums. Our dancers have to become dance."
Baltimore's premier African dance troupe will present two harvest celebration performances this weekend at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The program will begin with a mask dance from Senegal that celebrates the harvest and will include pieces choreographed as tributes to South Africa and to Alex Haley.
"Each culture in Africa has its own dance and rhythm," says Ms. Ajanku. "Senegalese is our favorite at this point in the African diaspora because of its rhythmic energy. The drum orchestration is woven so nicely with the dancing. If it's done correctly, it's one big stretch of artistic energy. It flies!"
Ms. Ajanku and her husband, artistic director and dancer Kauna Mujamal, created Sankofa Dance Theatre five years ago. After performing African dance for eight years with Washington's KanKouran West African Dance Company, the couple wanted to create a permanent home for the spirit and rhythms of African dance in Baltimore.
"We wanted the community to know this form should be as respected professionally as ballet and modern dance," Ms. Ajanku says. "We also wanted to use dance to increase intercultural awareness."
During the past few years, Sankofa has broadened its audiences by performing at shopping malls, street festivals, synagogues and the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Last summer, the music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that "Sankofa's hypnotic drumming and arresting physicality swept the audience off its collective feet" in a concert with the Ohio Chamber Orchestra.
"Sankofa creates a level of energy unprecedented in terms of dance and theater performance and audience participation," says George Ciscle, director of the Contemporary, a museum that programs exhibitions in temporary spaces. "There's a contagious energy that permeates throughout the audience at any performance I've ever gone to."
Sue Hess, executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, says the dance troupe provided the perfect finale for the organization's state arts salute last year at the Meyerhoff.
"The audience left the hall moving and gyrating -- feeling just great about the effect that the arts have on all of us," she says.
An Akan word, Sankofa means returning to the past to recoup what's been lost, then moving forward. Dancing with the troupe has made classically trained dancer Naima Jelani, 38, reconsider her roots.
"It makes me think about what my ancestors went through to get here," she says. "The dance form moves me a lot. It's a lot freer style of dance than ballet and it requires a great deal of strength. When I began, it was a challenge just getting through the warm-up."
Sankofa draws many of its performers from the dance school it runs in Dickeyville. The renovated mill building holds classes for roughly 125 students ranging in age from 7 to 62.
"We have developed a community of African dancers that never existed on this level in Baltimore," Ms. Ajanku says. "Some of the dancers come to exercise, some want spiritual energy or bonding and many come actually searching for artistic excellence."
There's a social mission as well: the company's commitment to working with children and youth.
"I like the way this company works at developing kids," says 41-year-old dancer Gloria Ray. "I see a lot of kids here who might be doing different things instead of learning values and being part of a community."
Mr. Mujamal also works as a counselor at the Woodbourne Center, an organization that serves Maryland children with behavioral and emotional problems. In 1992, Sankofa collaborated with the Contemporary in a program that encouraged Woodbourne students to choreograph and film their own dances.
"Through their interaction with the children, Sankofa was able to help the Woodbourne staff work with the students' self-confidence," Mr. Ciscle says. "They were also able to bring these children's creative potential to public attention."
A sense of family
Mr. Mujamal says the high-energy dance center also serves as a creative outlet for young African-American men. The troupe is using thedrumming talents of a tightly knit group of teens -- Menes Yahudah, Timothy Peterson, Patrick Beasley, Adebayo Sneed and Jumoke and K. Salim Ajanku -- who play authentic djembe (pronounced gem-bay) drums from Senegal.
As they talk about their commitment to Sankofa, the young men say they believe their drumming is enhanced by their friendships. They also say they like the strength and stamina their art requires. They like the fact that lots of kids want their autographs. They like that so much practice -- often four times a week -- keeps them out of trouble. And they like "being around a bunch of males and enjoying themselves."
"In this company, there's a sense of family and not a lot of competition," says 33-year-old dancer Rashidah Nkululeko. "Everybody works together in the spirit of oneness. To us, that's what dance is all about. To be a part of this company is like being a part of a village."
Sankofa performs at the BMA at 8 p.m. tomorrow and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 for general admission; $8 for BMA members, seniors and students and $6 for children under 10. Call (410) 235-0100.