How Covid pandemic helped dancer achieve her dream

The Kena Kona Dance Centre Founder Makena Kimani poses for a photo after an interview at Nation Centre, Nairobi on April, 20 2023

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita I Nation Media Group

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, as people tried to adjust to the normalcy of Zoom meetings, Makena Kimani, now 25, had her sights set.  Zoom would be her first vehicle to success. 

Now, three years later, she runs a dance school that offers affordable dance classes to inspire dancers and raise awareness.  

Coming from an artistic and athletic family, Makena knew at the age of 16 that dance was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Her brother was into karate and had once influenced her, and her sister was into performing arts. 

"I loved dancing from a young age, but it was often at school functions and church. One day, when I was still in secondary school and during the holidays, I saw a film called Street Dance. The final performance was a hip-hop and contemporary fusion that was so beautifully done that I knew then and there that this was what I wanted to do," says Makena.

"I did my research and enrolled at the Academy of Dance and Art in Nairobi for a year. My parents were very supportive and allowed me to leave school early some days to attend my dance classes. This was despite the fact that I wasn't very good at it yet," she adds.

After high school, she flew to Las Vegas to attend the College of Southern Nevada, where she majored in dance.

Her classes included the origins of different dances, the people who first did them, techniques in ballet, modern, jazz or tap, academic classes in subjects like dance history and kinesiology, and practical classes in stagecraft, production and choreography.

"In the practical classes you learn different dances. We had ballet twice a week. We had modern dance classes, Latin dances - like salsa and others. There were performances at the end of each term. A dance major had to produce a dance show. You create a routine, get your dancers, costumes, attend a dress rehearsal and record it," says Makena.

After earning her certificate in dance, she went to the Broadway Dance Center in New York City, where she earned another certificate in dance through the International Student Visa Program. She then travelled back home in 2019 and started teaching dance.  

She partnered with a dance studio that allowed her to conduct dance classes once a week, and with Art In Motion, a group of creatives like her, to produce shows at the Kenya National Theatre. She also appeared in a few music videos. Then came the pandemic.

"We were all thrown into the fire as a country, trying to adapt to the virtual world.  When I decided that all I wanted to do was dance for the rest of my life, the dream of having my own school came with it. I just didn't know when it would become a reality.  When the pandemic hit, I was taking zoom dance lessons from some teachers I looked up to. Everything changed when my mother suggested that I could offer online dance classes since people were just at home," Makena recalls.

"All I needed was a laptop, phone and internet and I was hooked. I engaged my brother to come up with a name, set up an Instagram page, find a logo, advertise and schedule the first class.  We started under the name The Kena Kona before eventually changing it to The Kena Kona Dance Centre. I started my first online class on 4 July 2020. I also had a friend help me with the administration because I really wanted to be professional even though I was just starting out.  She also recorded the Zoom classes so we had something to show for the classes," Makena said.

"I advertised the class for a month with an Instagram poster, asking those who were interested to just reply and say 'down'. I was trying to be professional, so I would email them back and say - thank you for your interest, here's the Zoom link, see you later. The first Zoom dance class, which was free and more like a cardio class, had about six people in it. It went well, even though I woke up that day feeling scared and excited and hoping that KPLC would bring a blackout," she recalls with a laugh.

People danced from their homes. It was a mix of beginners and relatively experienced dancers, and as a teacher you have to be more deliberate because someone might miss a move. I would demonstrate a move and then watch them do it. The class lasted between 45 minutes and an hour," says Makena.

"After the first class, we allowed those who wanted the classes to sign up on a weekly basis, changed the dance moves and then started charging. The classes were held on Saturdays. The challenges were many. KPLC power cuts affected the classes, and it was sometimes difficult to communicate until after the power cut was over," she says, adding that internet was also a problem, as was introducing the Kenyan dancers to online classes and convincing them that the class would be just as good if they danced from home.

"Sometimes in the beginning we would advertise, and no one would sign up, which made me question what I was doing. However, I would pick myself up because this is what I love and there's no other option for me. Now I run about six online classes a week and one physical class a month, with about three to ten students per class," she explains.

"Our vision is to be a holistic dance institution that creates awareness of dance as an art form, educates, creates dance experiences and shares dance stories.  We also want to normalise taking dance classes for fun.  Dance classes have been made to sound like they are only for professionals and aspiring professionals, but there is no right or wrong way to take dance classes, as long as you enjoy it," she concludes. 

This publication has been produced with European Union funding.