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.