Arts & Culture

Happy Feat

From flash mobs to flamenco, Dance Baltimore keeps the city moving.

Flash mob rehearsal starts at 6 p.m. at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in Mt. Vernon. Most Tuesday nights, the place becomes a hub for all types of dance and hums with rhythmic energy. There might be zumba in the first-floor gallery, an African class on the floor above that, and couples social dancing on the fourth floor. 

The flash mob group convenes in the third-floor dance studio. It’s a curious gathering, uncommonly diverse in a city where cultural activities too often divide along lines of race, class, and/or age. Participants in the hour-long session, which is open to the public, include teachers, health-care professionals, students, government workers, security guards, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, and, yes, a few professional dancers. Some folks dress in Danskins or yoga pants and appear eager to work out, while others wear jeans, or shorts, that signal a more casual approach. They are all shapes, sizes, and body types.

Instructor Renee Pitts walks everyone through the routine, which will be performed to Pharrell’s “Happy” at this month’s Artscape. Because it’s a flash mob, the time and place won’t be announced in advance—the group will assemble covertly amongst the crowd, break into the performance unannounced, and then disperse. They performed “Happy” at the Baltimore Color Run in April, and they’ve mounted “Thriller” flash mobs near the Inner Harbor and at the Hippodrome.

Pitts demonstrates the steps while counting: “One, two, three, four, and turn! Five, six, seven, eight, and turn!” Then, she throws her arms skyward, sashays sideways, and repeats, “Happeeeeeeee,” punctuating that exclamation with “turn, turn, turn, and turn!” Facing a mirrored wall, the students mimic her movements, adding improvised bits at prescribed intervals. After a few run-throughs, Pitts turns on the music and everyone dances along, with varying degrees of exertion and precision.

Afterwards, Kevin Kohler wipes sweat from his brow. A freelance writer and editor, the Annapolis resident started doing flash mobs two years ago, after dislocating an ankle and being forced to give up bicycling. It was something the 40-year-old had always wanted to do, and it looked like fun. “It is one of those bucket-list kind of things that I wanted to try at least once,” he says. “And it really helped me get comfortable with moving around again.”

Niki Jaski says she’s here “on doctor’s orders.” Jaski suffers from an unspecified ailment and, after reporting that flash mob practice helped her feel better, her doctor prescribed dance.

So Jaski makes the trek from Middle River with her 12 year-old-son, Branden. “It’s the one thing we always do together,” she says, nodding at the bright-eyed boy by her side. This is his third flash mob.

Jimille Figaro, a model and native New Yorker, comes to “experience the richness of the local arts scene”; LaVesta Jackson-Crute, an outreach worker for University of Maryland’s Breast Cancer Program, comes to unwind after work; and Phyllis Savoy, a YMCA dance instructor, comes to sharpen her skills.

They all mention how nurturing and fun it is. To a person, they credit Cheryl Goodman.

Ten years ago, Goodman founded Dance Baltimore, the nonprofit organization behind the flash mobs and numerous other dance-related initiatives around the city. An arts administrator who’s worked with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, The Baltimore Museum of Art, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Goodman initially formed the group to identify and address issues affecting the dance community. With help from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and venues like the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and the Hippodrome, she set out to enhance performance opportunities for local companies, present shows by visiting performers, increase media attention, and get more everyday people, not just self-identified dancers and choreographers, involved on a grassroots level.

Over time, that final objective really took hold. Though Dance Baltimore still produces events like the recent “Ageless Grace” showcase (for professional and community dancers over the age of 40) at the Creative Alliance and promotes area appearances by the likes of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, it now focuses primarily on creating opportunities for more people to dance. Along with flash mob rehearsal, Dance Baltimore offers a class of some sort on Tuesday nights, and it might be modern, jazz, belly dance, hip-hop, pole dancing, flamenco, or even aerial dance.

“You can try it out here,” says Goodman, “and, if you like it, go take more classes. We aren’t trying to compete with professional instructors; we’re trying to promote what they do.”

That’s because she views dance as an essential activity that transcends mere steps and styles. “Let’s face it, everybody dances,” says Goodman, sitting in the Eubie Blake lobby. “It’s one of the most authentic things that people do, and nobody has to teach you. When you hear music, you respond intuitively in your own way, and your personality comes out.

“We’re so accustomed to our roles as somebody’s mother, somebody’s uncle, or somebody’s employee, but when you’re dancing, you aren’t locked into those roles. It’s freeing.”

Like a lot of people, Goodman danced as a youngster, but gave it up after going to college and entering the workforce. Then, she met Maria Broom, the former TV reporter turned dance maven, who was teaching a class for adults (called the Dance Bringers) at a local church. “It gathered all these people—men, women, of all different sizes and backgrounds,” recalls Goodman. “It was such a nice feeling of fellowship in those classes. That’s what got me back into dance as an adult.”

It became something of a template for Dance Baltimore and its community-oriented programming. Broom, who is currently head of Dance Baltimore’s board of directors, lauds the organization’s commitment to accessibility, especially its knack for “attracting dancers who live inside bodies that aren’t necessarily svelte or well-trained. Cheryl and Dance Baltimore,” she says, “are blessings to the village of Baltimore.”

Their classes do exude an ease and friendliness that makes Baltimore feel, at least for an hour or so, more like a village than a city. And it’s utterly disarming to hear Goodman insist she isn’t really a dancer herself, even as she leads a portion of the flash mob class. “I’m just an everyday person,” she says, “so no one should feel intimidated learning from me.”

And there’s another aspect to the entire enterprise: the cool factor. This far removed from a prom or wedding, it feels altogether natural. “Who doesn’t look cool dancing to a Pharrell song?” Kevin Kohler asks, during a flash mob break.

He tucks his polo shirt into his jeans and heads back to the dance floor as class resumes.