By Danielle Miller
In a close quartered room filled with lights, mirrors, and a wall of positive quotes, community members are dropping off their children. Children aging anywhere from three to 19 years old are gathered to dance to the beat of a drum. O.N.F.Y.A.H. (Our Nation For Youth Arts and Healing) was started by Executive Director Akinyomi Courtney and Artistic Director Jo’Niece Monk in June of 2016.
“The good thing about this day and age is that people are more receptive to the culture of African dancing and drumming,” said Courtney. “You know, there used to be a point in time where, even us being black, we couldn’t take this into black churches.”
Going on their third year of dance and drum classes, Monk and Courtney watched the children warm up, while a child, as young as three, drugs a drum across the floor to start practicing.
The children were the driving force for starting O.N.F.Y.A.H., said Monk. After offering 45-minute classes in schools, Courtney and Monk realized the classes weren’t long enough for their students. With a collective background in choreography, music, and entrepreneurship, O.N.F.Y.A.H. found its home on the first floor of a community building that also holds organizations such as Running Rebels and Express Yourself Milwaukee.
“These kids have been pushing it and they don’t get tired, we get tired,” Courtney said about their students’ hunger to learn. “It’s an outlet for them.”
The dance classes are a way for students to release energy and gain confidence on and off the stage. Students with ADHD and other high-energy cases have been helped by classes, according to Courtney.
“Since they’ve been a part of O.N.F.Y.A.H., they haven’t had a problem in school, said Courtney. “[They] haven’t had a disciplinary action.”
The family oriented children’s ensemble has been rehearsing for their winter recital, which will be held on Dec. 30 at the African American Women’s Resource Center.
Courtney and Monk discovered that the biggest obstacle O.N.F.Y.A.H. and other community organizations face is transportation. It’s an obstacle the team at O.N.F.Y.A.H. has been doing their best to work around by relying on parents who are involved in helping out any way they can—from backstage help, to picking up or dropping off children who don’t always have access to transportation to rehearsals or to performances.
“Just getting kids to this space to learn something is very hard because [of] the transportation,” Courtney said. “A lot of parents are either at work…or don’t have reliable transportation, especially going into the winter time.”
The hard work and dedication of the students and teachers have paid off. The students of O.N.F.Y.A.H. performed across the country and have opened at rallies for Bernie Sanders in 2016, in both Madison and Milwaukee in front of thousands.
O.N.F.Y.A.H. is currently working with residencies in local schools, such as Milwaukee Collegiate Academy and Hickman academy to make the program more accessible to more youth in the community.
Classes range from Drumming to West African Dance to ensemble by audition only. Classes start at $7 per class with select times for beginner classes. The group also will be performing at Kwanzaa Fest that runs from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.
“With them coming [to class] …they blossom into a new individual…they’re outspoken, or their grades shoot up because now they have something to look forward to,” said Monk. “A place to go where they can get all of their energy out.”