a Daily Bruin A&E feature

Dance to Heal

Story and Photos by: Tehya Faulk
Khamari Bendolph grew up in inner-city Boston surrounded by the sounds of gunshots and the specter of death. For him, dance was the only way out – now, he offers to teach the art form to youth to help them escape their own rough realities.

Eight-year-old Khamari Bendolph set his stereo down in the crosswalk of Quincy Street in Boston, preparing for a dance battle with the neighbor’s kid. He synced the Harlem shake dance with the pulse of the music and shuffled his energetic feet to the heel toe, stopping only when cars needed to pass.

But dance was not the only battle Bendolph fought on Quincy Street that year. It was also the place where he trembled in his brother's protective arms during a drive-by shooting. He could not dance on those streets until the gunpowder settled.

Influenced by his own beginnings, Bendolph, a fifth-year dance student, has ripened into a choreographer who provides dance as an outlet for youth living in troubled environments.

“Kids don’t live and grow up in Boston to have dreams," Bendolph said. "They don’t have an outlet like dance that they have found.”

Growing up, dance was Bendolph’s form of play, anchoring him in artistic fantasies far removed from the harsh reality of Boston’s inner city.

“(Boston is) not a place for kids to grow up," Bendolph said.

When Bendolph was 9 years old, he would stand in front of the TV in his upstairs bedroom, intrigued by the music videos of Usher and Aaliyah. He admired the confident demeanor that both artists exuded as their bodies flowed to the music.

He watched these videos repeatedly, studying the dance sequences, until he felt he was ready to mimic them. Sometimes he would combine different moves from each artist, making his own sequence. He was unconsciously choreographing his own routine.

“It was the artist in me I didn’t know yet,” Bendolph said.

Bendolph showcased his self-taught skills at family barbecues, inside his aunt’s hair salon and at weddings. Jaye Morris-Knolen, Bendolph's mother, said she was not surprised that her son was the entertainment at every cookout and birthday party. After all, she remembers him bumping to the smooth sounds of Luther Vandross when he was in a baby swing.

Movement came naturally to him, she said

However, peaceful times of dance as play rested against the backdrop of an environment of violent uncertainties. He had to stop dancing in the streets when he was 10 years old due to a rise in gang activity in his area.

“I didn’t even understand what I was living in," Bendolph said. "Death was so close to me growing up.”

Death arrived at his home with a midnight phone call on Aug. 2, 2004.

As Bendolph's brother and father sat in the back of a car on Castlegate Road, the same street that Bendolph's father grew up on, a man fired shots at them. His brother died instantly. His father died soon after.

Bendolph said his heart felt bare adjusting to life in a half-empty household. The cloud of death obscured his desire to dance, lingering for about a year.

He wanted a way out, but could not find one at the time.

Morris-Knolen said she realized that she could not allow her son to remain disheartened, even in the face of tragedy. She helped to rekindle his enthusiasm for dance by enrolling him in classes and encouraging him to put energy into something other than dwelling on tragedy.

But after losing half of his family, dance could no longer be play.

“After losing them, dance was used as a filter for frustration,” Bendolph said. “It was the only thing that helped me to forget that night. It was the only thing that helped me to push away from my environment.”

He also identified with endangered youth more at this time, realizing that he could have encountered a fate similar to that of his 18-year-old brother.

Bendolph said he used dance as an outlet for grief and resolved to give other children the same outlet. If he could not prevent tragedy from happening in children's lives, he at least wanted to provide them with a method of coping with it.

He founded a dance crew at 16 years old called Thee Slap Bracelets, named after the '90s accessory. Dozens of teens he met throughout Boston joined the crew to express themselves through dance.

Many of them had grown up in circumstances similar to Bendolph's. He said he wanted to take them away from schools that had metal detectors, from Boys & Girls Clubs raided by police officers with guard dogs in search of drugs. He wanted them, when rehearsing in the dance studio, to feel safe.

“Nobody is talking about anything that is going on out there. We don’t have to talk about that here," Bendolph said. "We don’t have to be uncomfortable here."

Bendolph shared his hip-hop, modern and ballet techniques with the teenage members of his team. Other members were also encouraged to share their own knowledge of dance with the rest of the crew.

Morris-Knolen, also the team's manager, remembers having dancers prancing through her house on the weekends. She helped her son turn their house into a place for children who needed an escape from their rough realities.

A glimpse of life outside the inner city came when Bendolph was chosen for a summer dance program in California, followed by an acceptance to UCLA.

“Khamari is wildly creative in rehearsal," said David Roussève, the interim dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. "He has musicality combined with a desire to say something.”

While at UCLA, Bendolph was invited to dance for Roussève's company called REALITY. He also performed at WACSmash and founded a dance collective on campus.

Though he has moved to the opposite coast, he continues his involvement with Boston’s youth.

Every summer, Bendolph and Morris-Knolen bring children from Boston to their home in the Bay Area. They host a summer dance program that provides the children with a comfortable place to stay outside of Boston. Morris-Knolen said Bendolph uses his personal funds to help pay for the light and water bill while the children are in town.

In the future, Bendolph ultimately hopes to create a space that brings together children from Boston’s inner city with those from the affluent parts of Beverly Hills and everywhere in between. He said he plans to build a studio in which people of different socioeconomic backgrounds can dance together.

“I want to help those kids who have had to live without their power," Bendolph said. "I want to help them find themselves through dance.”