The auditorium is packed. Proud parents and family members, ready to see what their kids have learned at the Deninufay African Dance and Drum Company, take pictures as several young drummers take the stage. They each play a different drum line, creating a pulsing beat the audience claps along to. As they push along with the convivial drumming, a crowd of girls in colorful dresses dance their way onto the stage. They gracefully shuffle their feet and move their arms in time with the tireless beat. Clearly, they’ve learned a lot.

The mastermind behind performances like this is Deninufay’s director and founder Charlene Horlback. The school was founded in 2012, after Horlback left her position as director of dance company R.B.M. “We invited the community [to Deninufay], and that’s how it started,” she says.

Soon after deciding to form the school, Horlback chose the name “deninufay,” with a little help from a world-travelling buddy. “I had a friend who went to Guinea, West Africa, so I said to her, ‘When you go, get us a name for our new company,'” says Horlback. For those of you not up on your indigenous Guinea languages, the phrase aptly translates to “dance, children, dance.”

Deninufay’s primary goal is to educate children in the local area on many different dance and music customs from Africa. Horlback’s school is dedicated to working “with children in the community,” she says. “To give them an outlet, not hanging out on the corners, doing nothing to learn about their culture.”

Helping young adults in the black community understand their heritage is an obvious ambition for the drum and dance company, and for good reason, as Horlback explains. “Culture is who we are. It’s who you are as an individual,” she says. “When you define yourself in your culture, you’ll be happier. Something in your culture will bring life to you.”

The dance instruction that Deninufay provides doesn’t stop at African dance traditions. The school also ventures into stepping, lyrical dance, praise dance, music, and “a little bit of drama,” says Horlback. “We have some children who can sing, we have some dancers, we have some boys who play the drums. And it brings joy within, and I see that in them.”

Horlback also believes that many of the programs are beneficial to the students’ sense of self-worth. “I see the energy and enjoyment within, and it helps them become more motivated,” she says. “And it brings more strength within them.” Horlback notes that many children are shy at first, especially with something as extroverted as dancing or drumming, but (in many cases) they don’t take long to fall into the action. “They’re eager to come to rehearsal and if I am late, they will be calling me,” Horlback laughs.

As with most performing arts education, Deninufay attempts to awaken a passion for dance and music at a time when kids may not know they enjoy it. “It gives them a chance to embrace their talent and gives me a chance to find what their talent is,” says Horlback. “So, once I help them with that, they become a new person inside, and it’s pretty wonderful to see that.”

Horlback regards self-respect as one of the best lessons she can teach the children of Deninufay. “You have to be disciplined to learn,” she says. “It helps them to realize that your mind goes from level to level.”

Education of all sorts is an important part to Deninufay. “If I have a kid that’s having problems in school, I will find someone to tutor them and make sure that they keep their grades up,” says Horlback. “Because having good grades is one requirement. You can’t dance if you don’t have good grades.”

Cultural education, self-discipline, and a respect for the community that the children of Deninufay come from are all embedded in the dance and drum curriculum the school promotes. And once the children of the community have learned any lesson, they are encouraged to spread the knowledge they’ve gained. “It’s important to share,” says Horlback. “Once you’ve been taught, then you teach others, and that’s how you complete the circle.”

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.