The mesmerized pupils at Robert Moton Elementary in Westminster contorted their bodies so their eyes could follow the African dance troupe prancing about the school's gymnasium.
The eight dancers, their lean bodies adorned in the traditional clothing of dark reds and deep oranges and draped in the beadwork of their Kenyan and Tanzanian homelands, whistled and chanted as they strutted along the edges of the audience and down the middle aisle in a demonstration of the Maasai tribe's shepherd song.
As they passed the captivated pupils, dancers from the Friends of Sironka African Dance Troupe courted the crowd, plucking out a few volunteers to join them at the front of the room. Willing participants were in abundant supply.
"We have come to understand another way of life that is different, but it's not bad because it's different," intoned the troupe's leader, Nicholas Sironka. "We have a way of life that may be different from yours, but we want to learn about yours."
The Friends of Sironka African Dance Troupe wrapped up a six-week tour of Maryland with a hastily scheduled stop in Carroll County on Wednesday. Before dropping by Robert Moton that afternoon, the troupe visited Eldersburg Elementary in the morning.
At Robert Moton, the dancers took the volunteers and showed the audience how the Maasai settle disputes. A jumping contest. Whoever jumps the highest wins.
A raucous crowd mimicked those up front as pupils and at least one brave teacher copied the dancers, propelling themselves into the air.
"It's pretty neat - they came from across the world, and they are here dancing for us," said Skylar Hockman, 8, a third-grader at Robert Moton. "I get to find out what they do in their culture. It helps me learn."
Backstage, Sironka said he formed the troupe to give talented young Maasai vocalists and dancers from small towns and settlements the chance to travel and learn about places beyond their homelands, as well as share their traditions. Sironka's wife, Seleina, has served as the lead female vocalist since their first tour about four years ago.
"I try to put together individuals with talent but who have no ability to go to school," he said. "They'll use the money they earn [from touring] to build better houses and send their loved ones back home to school."
He said his troupe members learn as much about the United States and its traditions as they teach about their own.
"We need to share our cultures," said Sironka, a Fulbright scholar. "When we come here, we learn so much. The things you take for granted, we take seriously."
He pointed to telephones and restaurant dinners as examples of American luxuries that those in his Maasai tribe find fascinating.
School officials, who found out early this month that the troupe members had a three-day window in which they could visit, billed it as a "post-MSA" treat for students who had just finished days of state assessment tests, said Lynn Uram, a guidance counselor at Robert Moton and chairwoman of the school's multicultural committee.
"We're trying to teach our children to understand other cultures, to understand our differences and our similarities," she said. "It's very important to me that our children understand each other and not reject what's different."
The dance troupe travels throughout the United States and often the United Kingdom, stopping at universities, elementary schools and churches.
In addition to music and dance performances, the troupe sells traditional beadwork.
The performances in the United States and Europe help the performers earn money for their families and communities in Kenya and Tanzania. In addition to building more permanent homes or starting businesses, troupe members pledge that they will use some of their earnings to attend school when they return home, Sironka said.
"My philosophy is that when you're in the troupe and then go back home you will learn to read and write, because now you have enough money to take care of your family," he said.
This year's troupe made its first stop in North Carolina in January. It has several more U.S. visits, including Chicago; Tallahassee, Fla.; Tennessee and Virginia, before heading back to Kenya. The U.S. tour is scheduled to end April 18.
Sironka worries it may be the troupe's last year of touring, because of funding constraints. He said it cost $18,000 to fly the troupe from Kenya to the United States. He hopes to find a sponsor by next year to cover the cost of transportation.
Sironka said he also would like to do more all-day seminars, in addition to the dances, to share the Maasai culture. The seminars offer workshops on beadwork, batik painting, hair braiding and storytelling. But his troupe needs to be able to stay with a group all day to delve into the culture, he said.
He left the pupils at Robert Moton with a simple thought about accepting others.
"Sometimes when you look at people, you see them different from others," Sironka told them, "When a person is beautiful, you say, `That person is beautiful.' ... But it's what is in the inside that makes people beautiful."