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Akron refugees from East Africa dance together as the Black Beanz

Akron high schoolers are taking their original dance routines to stages across the country.

Among the many immigrant communities that call Akron home are refugees from camps in East Africa. Since the summer of 2020, a group of high school students who grew up in these camps have been dancing together in a crew called the Black Beanz.

The Black Beanz perform not just around the Akron area, but across the country.

Chomba Olenga, is billed as the team’s coach on their website, but among his friends, he’s just one of the boys.

“We do South, East and North African [styles]. We do Ndombolo, and that is from Congo, from Central Africa, and we do Afrobeat, that is from Nigeria. We do Amapiano, that is from South Africa, and we also do Bongo Flava, and that is from Tanzania,” said Olenga.

Young Black teenager in white shirt and white beanie smiles, with group of other teens out of focus in background.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Chomba Olenga is the Black Beanz coach and the face of the team, serving in a leadership role for the group of friends.

They recently won an invitation to the prestigious World of Dance, a series of competitions held all over the world. For their competition, the Black Beanz were picked through a regional audition process to compete in California in August 2023.

“They said, this is so unique, these boys are so joyous, we just gotta send them through,” said Tom Crain, one of the group’s managers.

The group won the audience award for favorite performance at the World of Dance.

Friends and co-creators

The Black Beanz choreography comes mainly from the mind of member Martin Kwitonda, but all of the members participate in the creation of their dances.

“I started creating dances back in 2020, when I moved to Akron, Ohio,” said Kwitonda. “The Black Beanz was not a dancing group, it was just four teenagers playing soccer.”

group of Black teenagers dance in front of a brick building
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Martin Kwitonda serves as the chief choreographer for the group and also as their chief jokester. The jovial Kwitonda brings energy to the Black Beanz stage performances as well as their friendship.

The teens all became friends while playing together for Akron Inner City Soccer Club. It was there that they recognized their shared love of dance.

“I started dancing when I was 2 or 3 years old,” said Kamana Pasi, of learning to dance in the refugee camps. “We would have parties, we used to dance at night mostly, me and my friends. That’s when I fell in love with dancing.”

Pasi and his younger brother, Samwel Matendo, another Beanz member, both grew up dancing in church, in Nyarugusu, one of Tanzania’s largest refugee camp. Kwitonda learned to dance in his home country of Uganda.

Black teenager in black shirt with gold trim has a whistle in his mouth, while seated spectators behind him hold up phone cameras.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Samwel Matendo using his whistle to bring another dimension to the dance, at a Black Beanz fundraiser in Akron over the summer.

The members of the team dance meld a variety of modern and traditional dance styles. For their triumphant appearance at World of Dance, they adopted traditional garb similar to what might have been worn by their ancestors.

“Way back we asked our parents, what did our people wear? Like our ancestors? And we all got the same thing from our parents,” Olenga said. "And we said, ‘We can do something with that!’” .

The Black Beanz will again attempt to conquer the World of Dance competition in 2024, and the crew plans to also audition for the TV show “America’s Got Talent.”

group of Black teenagers in matching white shirts and black pants dance on a stage with a DJ standing off to the side behind a computer.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
The Black Beanz seen dancing at a fundraiser for their California journey to compete in the World of Dance over the summer.

Ygal Kaufman is a multiple media journalist with Ideastream Public Media.