Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ignite Baltimore is ON - rain or shine

If you weren't able to get a ticket to tonight's Ignite Baltimore, fret not. You can watch it being broadcast live from the Engineer's Club just around the corner. Or, if you don't want to drive or walk through the rain, you can actually watch the whole thing live online from the comfort of your own home beginning at 6:00 EST this evening. Lotsa options.

Of the 18 people scheduled to speak, I'm number five. So in addition to my spiel about philanthropy, you should tune in to listen to media guru Gin Ferrara talk about taking a media free week each month; singer-songwriter Ellen Cherry meditate on the photographs of Dorothea Lange; and Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan riff on "Saint Elvis." And so much more.

Lily Susskind

When Lily and I did the photoshoot for this Unsung Baltimore entry, I was worried - just a little, and just for a second - that we were going to get arrested.

She stood in the middle of Monument Street at rush hour. She hopped inside a planter. She scaled one of the cornices of Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church. She climbed up into a window of the Peabody Institute to pose. I snapped away with my Nikon, determined not to let her see how chicken I was. It was one of the most enjoyable shoots I've ever done.

You can see the same sort of cheerful audacity in her performances with the Effervescent Collective. (Read on for more info about them.) Their latest work, "Pluto Dances," runs at the Lumberhaus from October 1-3, and features music by about half a dozen local experimental music bands. You don't want to miss it.


“Why are people so scared of me?” asks Lily Susskind, her brown eyes growing wide with mock incredulity. “I’m 5’2” and cuddly!”

Well, sure. But diminutive stature and cuddliness aside, there’s something about the dancer and choreographer that some people find intimidating. Perhaps it’s the intense energy she projects, whether she’s still or in motion. Perhaps it’s the passion that animates her voice when she talks about her art.

Or perhaps it has something to do with her blunt critiques of the ways that dance is typically viewed and taught in the U.S., which leads to assert that “dance on stage is a commodity,” that “ballroom takes everything cool about social dance and ruins it,” and that her 8th grade dance class was “aesthetically bullshit.”

Susskind, 24, is the director of the Effervescent Collective, a Baltimore-based contemporary dance group that “looks for powerful, alternative ways to understand everyday rituals and popular culture.” Effervescent, which was founded a couple of years ago by a group of Goucher College students and alumni, including Susskind, was recently recognized as the “Best Dance Company” in Baltimore by both the editors and readers of the City Paper. The group first gained popular and critical notice in March of this year, with its satirical, gender-bending send-up of the 80’s classic, “Dirty Dancing.”

Susskind and her Effervescent colleagues (including Claire Cote, Kait Orr, and Lynne Price) rehearse, perform, and teach classes at the Lumberhaus, a repurposed warehouse at 1801 Falls Road. The space, which Effervescent runs in collaboration with three other choreographers, is emerging as a center for experimental movement and music at the western edge of Baltimore’s Station North Arts District.

Lumberhaus, with its emphasis on collaboration and its multidisciplinary approach to making art, represents a facet of Susskind’s overall vision for dance in Baltimore. This vision involves drawing audiences and artists across racial, cultural, generational, and stylistic boundaries, so that they can experience and enjoy dance together.

Susskind’s goal is to use dance as a means of generating what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” the stimulating energy that arises among a group of people engaged in a communal event.

“Everyone knows that feeling,” explains Susskind, the words tumbling out. “It’s that feeling, that chemistry you find at a soccer game, or at that sweet dance party at 4:00 a.m. in your friend’s dorm room. When something is done collectively, everyone benefits. I want to create dance that’s rooted in that idea. I want to offer collective effervescence to people who feel that they’ve been outside the bounds of dance.”

Susskind believes that chemistry is hard to find in the mainstream dance scene. “Dance in Baltimore now leaves out a lot of people,” she remarks, citing the disconnection between contemporary dance created and performed in academic settings, and “vernacular” dance forms that have their roots in folk and social traditions.

“The idea that that dance can exist outside a social context, outside a physical space, is a western concept. It comes from the idea of performing for nobility, of ballet for the king’s court. Whereas in dances that come from the African diaspora, dance isn’t a metaphor for history – it is history. In Candomble, for example, you’re not pretending to be the orisha who’s taking you over.”

Although Susskind herself is a product of elite academic dance departments – she studied dance at Sarah Lawrence College before receiving a bachelor of arts in dance anthropology from Goucher last year – she’s most drawn to American popular dance forms, particularly Lindy Hop.

“Lindy Hop came out of Harlem in the 1920’s,” she says. “The history of Lindy Hop is the history of jazz, because jazz comes from a place where movement is inextricable from music.”

She was introduced to the style by friends who invited her to a Lindy Hop event in Dundalk hosted by Charm City Swing. “It was the most fun I ever had,” she enthuses. “It made me remember why I love dancing.”

Susskind is interested in more modern varieties of popular dance, as well. Beyonce is a particular favorite of hers, along with Missy Elliott and other dancers and choreographers whom she first encountered through music videos on MTV. She expresses frustration that these styles, as well as indigenous local party dances such as Baltimore Club and Hand Dance are not given the same respect afforded to ballet or modern dance.

“It’s no accident that most educational institutions don’t include enough about the history of jazz music or dance,” she observes. “Because if you’re going to enslave and subjugate a population, you’re going to say that that sort of dance and music is a lesser form. All of that influences our contemporary sense of what’s important in music and dance, and it means that dance is powerful, dance is dangerous.”

As a child growing up in the Boston area, Susskind experienced the disconnection between traditional methods of dance instruction and the visceral pleasure of movement. “I’ve always been dancing,” she says. “Little kids dance, you know? I love the sensation of dancing, the sweat.”

Her first dance lessons were a disappointment, however. “I went to creative movement at four, and then I started ballet, which I hated,” she recounts with an expression of distaste. "I found the tights and leotards very uncomfortable, I didn’t like the music, there was a lot of memorization…it was not fun. So I got out by the third grade.”

Her early experiences with jazz dancing weren’t much better. “In eighth grade I took a jazz class, but it was aesthetically bullshit. I mean, trying to argue that it’s an art form is a stretch. It can be a physical practice, a method of conditioning, but it’s all about math-based learning, and that weeds out kids who don’t learn that way.”

She pauses, her mouth quirking in an ironic smile. “Actually, I’m only coming around in my twenties to where I like being a dancer.”

Her love of dancing was rekindled by a trip to Israel this past spring, when she spent three weeks with the Batsheva dance company learning a method called Gaga. “It’s the best technique for dancing onstage,” she enthuses. “It involves classes where you never stop moving, but you move very naturally. It trains your mind to be multidimensional. It’s basically learning to move like a ninja.“

Gaga “was invented by Batsheva’s artistic director [Ohad Naharin], who had a herniated disc in his spine from being a Martha Graham dancer. He developed a class for people who had never danced before, whom he could teach while he was immobilized.” The class she attended “drew 200 people from about 30 countries, between the ages of 16 and 60.” Susskind was so impressed with the style that she has begun to offer classes in Gaga through the Effervescent Collective.

“I’m not interested in virtuosity,” she insists. “I’m less interested in performance than in rounding up a posse to do something collaborative.”

This desire to “put bodies together” led her to want to create an online “dance hub” for Baltimore, a portal where people of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of experience can connect to the local dance scene.

“Here’s my dream,” she says, her hand chopping the air for emphasis. “You come to Baltimore, you’re interested in dance, you find an easy way online to get a map of Baltimore and its different dance classes, programs, and schools. Baltimore, Philly, D.C., even Richmond – we need to work together as a region. You can’t expect people to work together until they have a channel to communicate.”

Locally, this would involve cross-fertilization and collaboration among professional dance companies, academic dance departments, and community-based dance groups.

“I’d like to see vernacular and contemporary dance given equal weight,” says Susskind. “I’d like to see dance professors have to teach nonpaying undergrads in the community. It would be easier for me to take classes at Coppin if Coppin dance teachers were invited to Goucher. The Lindy Hop group should announce West African dance classes at Sankofa. Everyone needs to be accountable.”

For Susskind, building a dance community in Baltimore is about respect. “We need to acknowledge what’s already going on in the community before we try to ‘help’,” she remarks. “I need to know what being a dancer in different places is like before I start making art with them. Sharing experience is what brings people together. Everyone needs to get specific benefits.”

Susskind sits back, clearly ready to stop talking and start dancing. Her 5’2” frame is relaxed, but practically humming with banked energy.

It's kind of intimidating.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Gary Williams

Gary Williams' resume is likely more impressive than yours. It's a heck of a lot more impressive than mine.

He graduated from an elite high school and went on to complete a dual major at a boutique liberal arts college. He taught Latin to 7th graders at a prestigious Catholic school. He's traveled through Italy and the American West.

Locally, he's been an Americorps volunteer, a community organizer, a job coach, a grant writer, and an outreach worker. He volunteers with
Youth Dreamers. He chairs the board of Youth As Resources. He's a beast at ultimate frisbee.

Oh, yeah, and I forgot to mention - he's not quite 24 years old.


Imagine this: you're just out of your teens, one of only a handful of African-American students at Mercyhurst, a small liberal arts college in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, 350 miles from the west Baltimore neighborhood where you were born and raised.

You've just been made a residential adviser for one of the dorms on campus. One of the residents under your charge is a young white male named Andrew, whose grandfather was murdered by a black man, and who consequently makes no secret of his negative attitudes toward African-Americans...including you.

If you're like most people, that would be an extremely uncomfortable, if not downright terrifying, situation to be in. But Gary Williams is not like most people. Instead of avoiding or antagonizing Andrew, Gary saw this encounter as an opportunity to confront the young man's prejudices -- and his own.

"At first I didn't realize that he was watching me, my friends, my reactions," Gary recalls. "I ended up changing his notions" about African-Americans. As a result, a connection was forged between the two; the more Andrew got to know Gary, the more his opinion shifted.

"Mercyhurst had a lot of kids from the suburbs and rural areas," Gary continues. "There was this sense there that 'real people don't live in cities.' I always had this view of college that you had to have a wide worldview, but a lot of students there didn't. For many people at Mercyhurst, Erie (which has a population of about 130,000) was the biggest thing they'd ever heard of."

In conversation, Gary projects self-confidence, cheerfulness, and warmth. He speaks animatedly and with passion, laughs a lot, and listens attentively. These qualities doubtless went a long way toward combating the ignorance and racial bias he encountered in college. But his willingness to engage with his rural white peers also forced him to examine his own beliefs.

"Mercyhurst was a crash course in conservative white America," he chuckles. "I didn't know a lot about small town life - I once asked a hunter friend if he bought his deer meat from the store -- and it opened my eyes to my own prejudices about small town people."

He laughingly recalls his roommate and close friend Dustin, who "wore flannel shirts, jeans, boots, and had a gun rack on the back of his truck. We were the oddest pair at parties. But we destroyed each other's preconceived notions. For instance, he couldn't stand Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh."

At the urging of his teachers, Gary helped found Diversity 101, a student organization that addresses issues of diversity and inclusiveness on the Mercyhurst campus and in the wider community. He managed to fit his duties as the group's secretary and treasurer into a schedule that included writing for the school newspaper, serving on the college's communications board, and completing a dual degree in anthropology and archaeology. He fell in love. He traveled to Europe. Yet the wider his world became, the more he appreciated his hometown.

"I missed Baltimore," he says simply. "I left for college feeling like I knew all there was to know about Baltimore...[but] I realized after seeing other cities in the Midwest, Italy, cities in Europe, New York, that I liked the uniqueness and quirkiness of Baltimore. I fell in love with the city once I had left it. I knew the people, the values, how it moves, its heartbeat."

Gary was born in the Baltimore's Lexington Terrace projects. When he was 10 years old, his mother moved the small family to Pigtown, a blue collar neighborhood on the city's west side that derives its unusual name from the historic practice of herding pigs through the streets to meat packing plants. Although known as a white, working class enclave, Pigtown has always been home to people of many different backgrounds.

The diversity of his new neighborhood took Gary by surprise. "Pigtown was like a 'ghetto U.N.'," he says with a grin. "There were Hispanics, Vietnamese, blacks, whites...It was a big deal. I didn't know that there were poor Asian or white people. I was shocked."

Even so, Gary remembers times when his family didn't feel welcome in Pigtown. "The neighborhood association was mostly white. They used code to say that there were too many black people moving in. Mom always used to say that there are lots of nice people, but there are always going to be people who don't like us because we're black. In my mind, poor white people equaled racist white people."

Gary's mother countered that viewpoint through the relationships she forged with her neighbors. "My mom was best friends with a white woman named Ms. Louise, [whose] daughter was uncomfortable with Ms. Louise being such good friends with a black woman. When I go back to Pigtown, I always check on ms. Louise. She's like my grandmother."

Another role model for Gary was an older woman named Ms. Edith, whom Gary remembers for the active, fearless way she would engage everyone in the neighborhood. "She spearheaded a fundraiser for a playground," he recalls. "There was a place called 'the Hole' where there was lots of drug activity. Ms. Edith talked to the dealers there and convinced them to give to the tot lot."

His eyes mist over at the recollection. "I learned patience and perseverance from her. She would just listen to people; she wouldn't judge. She lives and breathes loving everyone...she greets everyone with hugs."

Although he is self-effacing about his academic achievements, claiming that he's "never liked sitting in class," Gary was a star student. He attended high school at Baltimore's prestigious Friends School, where he developed an affinity for ancient studies, especially Latin.

"It's a systematic language with clear rules," Gary explains. "Latin expands your vocabulary. If you see an unfamiliar word but can see the Latin root, it can help you figure out what the word is."

Latin even helped Gary get into college. "I couldn't afford SAT prep," he says. "The SAT used huge words, but since I knew the Latin roots, prefixes, etc., I found it easy to deconstruct them."

"I love the Greek Orthodox concept of theoria," he continues. "That is, applied knowledge: how does this work on a day to day level? When I see stuff come up, I think, do I see myself doing it? Will it enable me to use the skills I already have, while at the same time push me to learn something new?"

This practicality led Gary to join Youth As Resources (YAR), a youth-led philanthropic organization that distributes small grants to Baltimore neighborhoods and nonprofit organizations that do good work with scant resources. Young people comprise the board of YAR, which reviews proposals and comes to consensus about the allocation of grant funds. In the process, YAR members learn how to think critically and work together to solve problems.

"I feel comfortable with divergent views and conflict," says Gary, who currently chairs the YAR board. "If we always agree, then there's something wrong with the group process. It's important for everyone to be involved. Creating buy in gets people to take ownership."

He encountered a similar group dynamic during his recent stint with Public Allies, an Americorps-funded leadership development program that places young people in stipended internships with nonprofit organizations. Public Allies are divided into five-person teams that provide peer support and make joint decisions - an environment in which Gary thrives.

"Team members take big picture ideas and break them down into a manageable plan," he says of the Public Allies model. "We're able to be visionary, but break it down and relate it to people's everyday experiences."

Gary's Public Allies placement was with Job Opportunities Task Force, where he helped provide employment counseling to jobless East Baltimore men training for positions in the construction industry. His experience working with job seekers opened his eyes to the array of social and economic obstacles that stand between low-income Baltimoreans and the American dream.

"Baltimore is 65 percent African American, but African Americans aren't getting college degrees," he says. "There should be opportunities for people who don't go to college."

One such opportunity he is interested in exploring in more depth is micro-lending, the practice of distributing small loans to entrepreneurs with limited means who wish to start businesses in their communities. Inspired by the success of micro-lending initiatives by the Grameen Bank and other institutions overseas, Gary hopes to someday implement a similar approach in Baltimore, one that would benefit low-income women in particular.

"Women's economic well being and education level really determine their children's future and the economic health of their families," he says, going on to lament the high barriers to entry that face African-Americans.

Gary cites the experience of a hairdresser he knows who sought to strike out on her own. "She worked three jobs and was borrowing money from friends in order to start her own salon. And she had support from a huge network of family and friends! What about the people who don't have that kind of support?"

"Micro-lending is a dream of mine," he says with feeling. "Not just giving people money, but helping them with their business plan and financial planning." To realize this dream, he would plans to draw heavily on his past experience as a funder. "I like the way YAR gives its grants: it works with grantees to build their vision."

While he builds toward that goal, Gary continues to manifest theoria in his work. Currently that work includes serving as a site coordinator for the the Choice Program, an initiative of University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Shriver Center that assists young people caught in the juvenile justice system.

Throughout his wide-ranging academic and professional careers, Gary has continued to be guided by the values instilled by his mother, and by his love for Baltimore and its varied communities.

"People talk about how each neighborhood feels like a different city," he says with a smile. "But they all interconnect."