Ko-Thi Dance and Drumming Children's Group Led by Milwaukee Dancer, Educator, and Mother Imani Huley
Imani Huley was “born into dance.” She's the daughter of a dancer and dance company founder who had been part of Milwaukee’s Ko-Thi Dance Company before moving to Colorado. In Fort Collins, Huley grew up dancing alongside adults in her mother’s circle of friends and colleagues, but, at ten years old, she and her mom moved back to Milwaukee. After her mom took her to see a Ton Ko-Thi performance, Huley became enthralled by the idea of dancing African Dance alongside other children. Ton Ko-Thi (Meaning “Little Ko-Thi") is the children’s dancing and drumming company within Ko-Thi Dance, and was founded in 1980 by Linda Lacy Hodge and Ferne Caulker-Bronson.
Fast forward to the present day, and Huley has been a dancer with the company now for twenty one years and has been acting as the artistic director of Ton Ko-Thi for over three years.
After dancing with Ton Ko-Thi from the age of ten to eighteen, Huley explored a career path in nursing. But the move away from the world of dance didn’t feel quite right. She felt disconnected from her main medium of artistic expression, and a voice inside told her to change course.
“Something in me was like, don't lose your gift,” said Huley. “Because you know, God gave you your gift and if you don't use it, he'll take it.”
Huley initially made a few attempts to re-enter the world of African dance, but it was only after the birth of her son that it stuck. After learning the ropes and excelling as a part of the adult company, she realized that she had the capacity to take her involvement further, to give back. She envisioned serving as the artistic director of Ton Ko Thi, but she had no formal experience in teaching. The founder and Executive Director at Ko-Thi Dance Company, Ferne Caulker-Bronson, saw a spark and potential within her and decided to give her the opportunity to hone her teaching skills on the job with that future leadership role in mind.
“I was the teacher for the studio classes for a little bit to get used to how they do things with the children. I did studio classes for a good four years before they said, ‘okay, we're ready to try you out as the artistic director.’”
The journey of becoming and now acting as the artistic director has enabled Huley, who is a mom, to apply her own knowledge and perspective on youth to a whole community of young people in Milwaukee.
“When I look at these children, I want to give them the same thing that I received when I was younger. The sense that you are not too young to learn anything. You're not too little to learn anything. You're not too big to do anything and you can do anything you put your mind to.”
While teaching and leading is a largely fun job according to Huley, it carries great responsibility. She sees challenges in the youths she engages with, including developmental or social stumbling blocks. Through teaching and engagement, she witnesses the power of studies of dance and music as a pathway for children to discover, lean into and cultivate their strengths.
“I'm noticing that a lot of the children are not confident. A lot of children don't know how to speak up for themselves. A lot of children feel bullied or awkward or don't feel like they fit in. And I wanted to make a space for children that this is where you can be yourself. You can blossom, you can grow into the king or queen you want to be,” said Huley.
“There's so many opportunities that you can do with dance. It's just not dancing and drumming,” she reflected. “You can be a physical therapist, you can be a doctor for athletes, you can be a writer, you can be a journalist, you can be a TV host. There's so many things that you could do with the arts, it's just not dancing. So I wanted to open up their eyes to a bigger world and let them know that you can accomplish anything.”
Beyond exposing the children to dance and music, Huley is also concerned with their overarching development. As a result, she’s folded reading and tutoring blocks into the downtime within rehearsals.
“I started noticing that the reading levels are starting to be a little low. So that's why I came up with a book drive,” said Huley. She now collects donated books from schools for the children to make use of downtime in rehearsals, and even offers tutoring for the kids.
Through her work and through raising her young son, Huley has come to understand the needs of children today. In her role, she sees an opportunity to act as a supportive and engaged elder who can help guide kids away from negative influences, to form an understanding of the world, and a sense of who they are and who they can be.
“That's been a big thing for me, making sure that I build their confidence, building their minds, building their thoughts, building their person.”
Exploration within the arts begins with creating a space that is welcoming and safe enough for children to work through vulnerability, and any challenges or barriers they might experience in trying something new that requires skill development.
“I'm noticing there are a lot of autistic kids out here, but they are so nervous and so shy and they wanna fit in so well that they don't wanna do anything. But when they came in here, their personalities lit up.”
Because there’s a spectrum of comfort in the space of learning dance and music, there can be a steep learning curve for the material itself. Huley moves all the children she works with through a process of discovery that may result in them being invited to audition for the company.
Students who get involved begin by training in a studio process in which they are invited to try both dancing and drumming. Huley and other Ko-Thi dance leaders observe the students and invite children who display aptitudes for learning to audition for the company.
“Once they start getting implemented with how we do things, then they're like, ‘okay, we ready.’ And we throw 'em in a fire. We invite and then we watch them and see how they pick up things. And then we make sure we talk to the parents to see if that's something that they wanna do.”
Today, Ton Ko-Thi has 27 student company dancers, ranging in ages 5 to 16. Auditions take place in the summer, and students practice throughout the year with most of their performances focused in the summer months so that academics can be the focus during the school year.
Ko-Thi’s focus is on African diasporic drumming and dancing, and many cultural traditions and stories are embedded in the forms. Because of this, the group has attracted the interest of local families who have adopted Black children and are seeking pathways for those children to explore their identities and cultures of origin in safe, supportive space.
“We have a lot of adopted children. Children adopted from different countries and they're looking for safe places for the children. So we open up our arms and say, you know, come and check it out, see if it's something that you like. And then they usually be like, ‘yeah, this is so fun!’”
Huley sees Ton Ko-Thi’s network as an extended family for all the children and adults who are involved in it. This translates to everything down to the coordination of getting children to rehearsals—which sometimes Huley herself will step in to help with.
“This is a family. I say it takes a village and we really go by that. It takes a village to raise the children. It takes a village to raise a family. So, we make sure that we all come together as one and we make sure we ask the parents what they need from us to make sure that we are contributing to what they need for us to provide for their children.”
In addition to the work she does with Ton Ko Thi company students, Huley also does dance workshops in two Milwaukee Public Schools, Sherman Multicultural Arts School and Brown Deer High School, where she works with children in grades K-12, and with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee. Many of her students are completely new to African dance when she begins working with them.
“I have to meet them where they are. So I'll have to make sure I do it step by step or make it into a game or add props just to get them engaged. And once I get them engaged, I have to keep their attention. When it's dealing with the big kids, I scroll on TikTok and they're surprised that I know the TikTok moves. And with the little kids, I just make it fun. And I use a lot of props just to keep them engaged, which is coming down to them, making them feel comfortable in a space,” said Huley.
Beyond the powerful positive impact that dance and drumming have on individual kids of all ages, she’s also seen how learning dance and music can promote positive social interactions between children.
“it's already awkward. I have to dance in front of my classmates. I just had a fight with this girl, and now you want me to stand next to her and do a dance move?” Huley said, giving an example of a common scenario among the students. “And then when you find out that she's left footed and you’re left footed and y'all left footed together, then they start to connect.”
In 2024, Huley is looking to grow Ton Ko-Thi. Right now, word of mouth is the best way that she has found to welcome new families and kids into the community. As the group grows, she hopes to continue responding to the needs of the children, and expanding the dynamic methods used to engaging with kids to build comradery and teamwork. She’s even thinking of leading the group in more tactile collaborative projects… including a Lego mural that will reflect the diversity of the community.
“It has been an adventure; I'm learning every day as well,” said Huley.
In 2024, Ko-Thi Dance Company is celebrating 55 years in operation in Milwaukee. You can support their work in the community by making a donation, attending a community dance class or performance. Learn more and support the work of Ko-Thi dance at kothidance.org.