neljä miestä

Dance to freedom – Kusakata densi kwa uhuru

”Scary. And relieving and happy,” sums up Joshua. And Samson, Jemo and Keizz nod.

The long awaited is now true and there are a lot of emotions on the surface.

It’s Tuesday, February 6 and we’re sitting in an empty, brand new dance studio at Kenrail Towers, Nairobi Westlands. Everything looks ready, down to the murals: there’s the big Empire Dance Kenya logo, there’s the wild dancer. Slogan on the front wall: Nothing serious.

This they always repeat to us encouragingly as we stumble through the choreography learning phase. Nothing serious, just enjoy!

The grand opening in mid-February is just one and a half weeks away, a decade from the inception of a dream.

Five young men arrived penniless in the capital, each by his own path. They found each other at Sarakasi dance school, bonded by two things: friendship and a shared dream. One day, dance would sustain them, and they would have their very own studio.

Nothing serious, yet at the same time, the most serious thing ever.

tyhjä sali, me ikkunalaudalla
Soon we’ll dance here, everything is ready.

Samson – an orphan boy who became Papa

The other empirians call Samson Gome ”Papa”, even though they are all peers in their thirties. When you get to know Samson better, one understands why. He’s the caregiver, the father figure.

He says he became one because he was originally a little boy no one took care of.

”My parents died so early I don’t remember them at all.”

Six children were sent to an uncle in Uganda. Samson remembers the violence and endless toil, but only at 11 did he dare to flee, crossing into Kenya and eventually reaching his grandmother in Kisumu, a city in western Kenya. Some siblings made it with him, not all. 

In Kisumu Samson achieved top grades for a while but had to drop out of school to earn money. The teenage boy set out to try his luck in Nairobi.

”I knew no one here, but tried to find odd jobs. Carried water and bricks, whatever.”

In his spare time, he watched videos of people dancing. 

”I drew strength from the music and learned moves. And I started looking for a place where I could truly learn to dance.”

Samson ended up at Sarakasi dance school first. They let him in, but not into the performing groups.

”I was told to go home, they said I’m not good enough. But I refused to leave. Sometimes I became an errand boy for the others, but I stayed and continued learning.” 

He spent days at school and nights in restaurant shifts, sleeping a couple of hours here and there.

Then new guys from the coast showed up. Mombasans Joshua and Ben were just looking for a roof over their heads, empty stomachs. They admired Samson, who earned real money from a real job. Young men started talking and spending time together.

At the end of the day Samson used to buy himself tea and mandasi for 70 shillings. When he noticed that the other boys were sharing a teacup of 20 shillings with each other, it felt wrong. He started buying something for everyone.

”And that’s how I became Papa.”

Joshua – the best dancer at funerals

Joshua Yoga was known in the coastal dance circles. He discovered dance as a little boy – through funerals.

”Back home people used to play music and dance at funerals. During the dance people gave money to support the mourners. I danced in such a way that funeral organizers began to invite me in,” Joshua tells.

”That’s when I first realized I might be good at this. But I couldn’t imagine that dance could become a profession.”

He grew and danced, entered dance competitions, and began to win. 

”Often, the prizes were money, and I even paid a small part of my school fees by dancing.” 

Eventually, Joshua’s dance group made it to national competitions – and to Nairobi. During the trip they also visited Sarakasi school, the famous dancers’ paradise. 

They were shown dormitories where those from afar could stay and were also promised regular income from dance performances. The boys returned home with their heads full of plans. They would come back to stay.

”We thought, if Nairobians can sustain themselves by dancing, so could we, since we had already beaten them in competitions.”

Joshua, Benjamin Oketch, and a third member of the group from Mombasa arrived in Nairobi with their bags, trained all day, and when evening came, asked for a place to stay the night. 

Nothing like that has been promised to you, came the reply.

Jemo and the secret plan

December 2007 marks the darkest moment in Kenya’s dark electoral history. That time over a thousand people died in post-election violence across the country, and an estimated 350,000 had to leave their homes. One of them was fourteen-year-old Jemo, James Wanjohi.

”Our house was burned to ashes and our whole life collapsed. Mom and sisters went to church shelter, my father, brothers and I slept outside for months,” Jemo recounts. 

Eventually, the family moved from Eldoret to Nyeri, mom’s hometown, to start anew. Jemo was poor in school but excelled in music and outstanding in football.

”My father forbade me from football and told me to focus on school. In a way, I understand. He was an engineer himself and thought that only through education could one succeed.” 

Jemo struggled through high school, but the most important achievement during those years was forming a dance group with his friends. His grades weren’t enough for the university studies his father hoped for, so Jemo was left doing various agricultural jobs – and dancing. 

”We participated in a dance event in Muranga, where one of Sarakasi’s teachers saw us. He got excited about us, showed videos, and talked about how great the school would be. I watched videos of cool dancers and decided that’s what I wanted to be.” 

He made a visit to Nairobi and saw many cars in the Sarakasi parking lot.

”I thought they belonged to the dancers and figured, good, there’s money here.”

Now the memory makes him laugh.

”I returned home for odd jobs and secretly from my father started saving for the departure.”

Jemo enrolled in the school in August 2015, the last of the future Empire Dance group. He also studied on the DJ line. ”I thought, if I don’t succeed in dance, I can always support myself as a DJ.”

Kuondoka – leaving on empty

At Sarakasi, they trained from dawn till late, and somewhere in between they should have conjured up money for food and lodging. Small fees could have been earned from performances, but it seemed nearly impossible to get into the groups.

Amid the initial confusion, Joshua remembered a namesake, Joshua Kei, better known as Keizz, who had moved from Mombasa to Nairobi earlier. He called Keizz, who initially rescued the destitute under his roof.

”We stayed at the school for a year before we left,” Joshua says.

They had become convinced that nothing was moving in the right direction. They also observed others who had come to the school years before them. Were they in a better place now? Had they progressed in life?

”It was clear that we wouldn’t have grown there. And we really wanted to grow,” says Joshua.

The team was assembled: four dancers Joshua, Ben, Samson, and Jemo, plus Keizz, who later became Empire’s videographer and photographer. (Check out Empire Dance’s Instagram account, full of Keizz’s shots.)

In 2015, they set out into the unknown. And the unknown can be really empty.

Kuzaliwa kwa ufalme – birth of an empire

The young dancers offered themselves for performances in restaurants and events, with little success. Sometimes they were allowed to dance, but the promised reward was never paid. 

Besides, they needed to find a better place to train than the streets. And a fairly decent home.

Joshua contacted Kenya Dance Academy’s Jermaine Nickson who, after hearing the whole story, wanted to help. He gave the group a practice space in the YMCA building and also asked them to help with teaching.

”We were scared and shy. We didn’t understand anything about teaching dance, we didn’t even speak English. Ben knew a little, so he got to do the talking,” says Samson. 

”Sometimes dance students invited us to hangouts, where we sat quietly and afraid that someone would ask us something,” laughs Joshua.

They rented a shared room in the Ngara neighborhood, far from the YMCA.  Strapped for cash, they walked or ran the distance, even in the rain. At the destination, they changed into a dry shirt, so clients would think they came by Uber.

They usually made the return trips by matatu minibus, but first they waited an hour or so until the tickets got cheaper in the early night.

”We spent hours on the street and talked. We began sketching the idea on having our own studio someday. At that time, there was a TV series called Empire, from which we took our name: we would build an empire of dance,” Samson tells. 

Eventually one of their dance students connected them with someone who rented out a gym in a shopping center. The deal was made, and the boys bought a cake to celebrate Empire Dance Kenya’s first own class. The year was 2017. 

Since then, there have been many cakes for various reasons as in the Empire the value of celebration is understood. I can’t remember how many times I’ve eaten cake from a napkin in my year and a half with the gentlemen. On Finland’s Independence Day the dress code for the dance class was blue and white.

neljä miestä
Samson, Jemo, Joshua and Ben, and the early days of Empire Dance Kenya in 2017.
ihmisiä ja ruusuja
On Valentine’s Day 2023 they gave a rose to each student after practice.
ryhmäkuva reeneissä
In April 2023 we had lived in Kenya for a year. In honor of that, we were asked to do something ”our own” as a surprise party number. We did our jive choreography, then a group portrait was taken.

Mtoto mzuri – the baby may grow

Between the first rented hall and their own studio there has been a lot of adjusting, several moves, and one pandemic. They’ve made it through everything – also because the boys have been saving money from the very start. 

Setting up the studio has drained the savings, but future finances are balanced by renting the hall to others as well. ”Business always has its risks, but I believe our vision will guide us also in the future,” adds Joshua. 

They emphasize that this is just the beginning, merely a ”baby empire.” The next dream is a whole house of dance, music, and art, and many studios across the country. 

”Kind of like Kentucky Fried Chicken, where the fries taste the same everywhere,” Joshua paints. 

Now I voice my objection. Cloning fries is one thing, cloning the gift of teaching dance another.

Yet, I know they have been building the possibility of expansion for years, in a way. Alongside their work, they have spent a lot of time supporting young talented dancers. Every Sunday they gather with Nairobi Street Vibes dancers downtown, in the central business district, and start an open street dance event. They also invite street dancers to Empire’s classes, sometimes to practice teaching as well.

 ”We want to give them skills to help themselves,” summarizes Joshua.

Papa Samson has also started supporting young school dropouts who attend street events from the Dandora slums. In the future he wants to expand support through fundraising events that others can also participate in.

Kupata furaha – finding joy

The class follows a familiar pattern. First, a varyingly deadly half-hour of warm-up, then a good hour of learning the new choreography. When it’s ready, we dance for Keizz’s camera for about half an hour. 

Oddly enough, the 1–2 minute choreography eventually sticks in the mind and body. And for that, I thank the teachers’ magical powers, not myself.

Yet, the routines are a secondary matter. The main thing is the feeling that catches you in the dance studio. 

Me and my husband Pasi fell into dance about ten years ago when we went to a beginner’s ballroom dance class. Our innocent intention was to learn ”a bit of dancing” but we also got hooked on competing. After the initial run, the pace picked up, we pushed along the ground with the glitter of medals in our eyes, and in a few years we progressed from E skill class to B-dancers.

In ballroom dancing A- and B-classes compete together, at least in Finland. In the lower skill classes we were used to returning home with shiny decorations around our necks – now we competed in the toughest possible group of our age category and didn’t even make it to the finals. (Except once by accident, when there were hardly any of the good ones.) 

What began as a wonderful hobby started to furrow the brow. We sought (and found!) faults, and it always felt like we weren’t training enough. And no amount of training would suffice for us, who started late, to catch up with lifelong dancing virtuosos. In addition to the heart, the soul of my feet began to hurt chronically, occasionally a few other body parts as well. 

Then we left for Kenya.

After months of searching we found Empire Dance in December 2022. (Thanks for the tip, Saara, thank you, thank you, and thank you.)

We found our way back to joy.

Two families. When our children visited us we finally got the dance family and our own family together for a double family portrait. (The kids are shockingly good at Afro dances, right out of the blue. It would be depressing if it weren’t so much fun.)
On Empire Dance’s YouTube account you can find moods from the choreography learning phase.

Aina za Mapenzi – species of love

Dance can be loved in many ways, for many reasons.

”I’m happy that I could make a career out of passion, which pays off and carries,” Joshua encapsulates. 

Jemo says he first loved music. Through it came dance.

”I think the best compliment to a good song is to make good choreography and dance to it,” he says. And adds: ”Dance is also the easiest way to release stress and take care of mental health.” 

For Samson, dance has always been a shortcut to joy and comfort. ”It’s a place of escape, where you can forget sorrows and challenges.” 

(Ben isn’t with us in the empty dance studio because he’s living through the winter in Canada, supporting the birth of his Canadian-Kenyan baby. But we certainly know he has his own way of loving dance.) 

Teaching adds even more joy. 

”I enjoy when a student progresses. I rejoice in the joy of another. I love the shared energy of dance classes, where even a bad day turns good,” says Joshua. 

”Many have come to classes not knowing their left foot from the right. When they eventually get into the dance, I’m so happy to have been part of the process,” says Jemo. 

The actual father of the Nothing serious slogan is Papa Samson. When I think of the phrase I hear it in his voice in my mind.

”That’s my message: let go, don’t fear mistakes. When you stop being afraid, you’ll surely learn. Dance happens where a person is free.”

Our last dance lesson with the guys from Empire Dance Kenya before leaving for Finland summer vacation in June 2023.

In the Intermediate classes rhythms and patterns are more demanding. I finally dare to shyly visit them little by little.
me ja pojat
On Friday February 16.2.2024 we celebrated the opening party. Next week the lessons start again, after a two-week transition break.
This picture I added afterwards: on Monday we 25.3.2024 danced together the last time – until we meet again. Tunakupenda milele, tutarudi.


PS. I scatter a criminal amount of dance videos on my own Instagram account, worth checking out.

PS2. Thanks for some of the photos and videos Keizz, Pasi and everyone!

PS3. Ville, thank you for mentoring with the English translation. (For those who visit my blog for the first time: I’m a Finnish freelance journalist having lived in Kenya for nearly two years now. The name of my blog Viileät vedet means cool waters, since the name of Nairobi comes from the Maasai word enkarenairobi – cool waters. My language is Finnish, but this one I wanted to translate, despite of my insecurity with English.)

About the author


Comments are closed.