Photo Credit: Willow Street Pictures
We are Reading: Dancing in the City
Six hip hop dancers from Reading, PA -- Theresa Gonzalez, Liyanah Mann, Ashanique Monlyn, Stephanie Seda, Caliph Shabazz, and Jaymes Williams -- partnered with five Penn State Berks student writers-- Megan Antosy, Symone Corbin, Imane Guisse, Rachel Hayes and Chelsea Watts -- to share the dancers’ stories.
The six dancers were in “This is Reading,” a performance art installation in Reading in July 2017 written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Nottage’s work comes at an important time. There is a lot of uncertainty about Reading’s future. Much of what is written or talked about lauds its heyday from the early 1900s-1960s, when steel and textile mills brought prosperity and possibility to the city. Other stories about Reading lament its decline, when factories shut down and unemployment escalated. “This is Reading” was Nottage’s attempt “to capture the voice of a city that is grappling with how to reclaim a narrative that has been fractured along racial and economic lines, with renewed energy and spirit to carry it to a level of greater prosperity and hope.”
We are Reading: Dancing in the City aims to build on the work of “This is Reading” by delving into the lives of these six Reading residents and their perspective(s) on their city. The project uses the dancers’ stories as a route to try to understand life in Reading, along with its challenges and triumphs. The stories about these young dancers offer us a way to engage with the city and look to possibilities for its future. The stories may also be disseminated using other methods, from live-performance to short video-vignettes.
This project is also a collaboration with Albright College’s Communications program. Dr. Heidi Mau and her students designed the book cover and layout. This effort between Penn State Berks and Albright College is important and meaningful, as it reflects the potency of academic institutions working together to address issues in the larger “home” that they share.
We, Laurie Grobman and Cheryl L. Nicholas, feel privileged to have taught this course in storytelling, to see the relationships develop between the dancers and writers, and to have learned more about the lives of these six dancers from “This is Reading.” As professors of English and Communication Arts and Sciences, respectively, we both understand the power of storytelling in social justice efforts.
If you consider yourself an artist in any way, you know that sharing your vision, and especially collaborating with someone to achieve that vision, can be terrifying. The dancers each have their own preferred style of dance. They have their own methods for creating new dances, and, for the most part, they each have different ways of bringing that vision to life. But this level of creative input in a group dynamic is only achieved through respect and trust, and with this group the two need to be earned. The shared commonality, the string that ties the group together and paves the way for the respect and trust, is their passion for dance and their drive to make it to success within the dance community.
The ages of the dancers range, as do their life experiences, but they met thanks to their respective years participating on the Reading High Dance Team. Asha and Jaymes met in high school when Asha moved to Reading from New York and joined the dance team. Towards the end of Asha and Jaymes’ time in high school, they met Stephanie. Years later, Stephanie met Theresa and Liyanah through the dance team. But for the most part, their current dance team and friendships formed from their time on a Reading High alumni team that was started by Ms.Davis, the high school’s dance coach. It was there that the former generations of the Reading High Dance Team merged with the newer generation, and through their shared love for dance became a group bonded by shared experiences.
The group is in constant communication. Even though they all lead lives separate from dance, their relationship to one another, and proof that their minds are always on their moves, can be found in their various group chats, Facebook messages, and the way they seemingly have the ability to finish each other’s sentences. Such communication, as the experts say, is the key to healthy relationships, and such communication also allows the dancers to know and understand each other intimately. To Caliph, the group is family. “It’s our dance family. It’s just us. We have the whole, no one gets left behind. [We] care about each other, that’s just how we are.” The group has actual family ties, as well, with Jaymes as a godparent to Asha’s two children.
Like any family, the group has their problems. They argue and they bicker; if one member is annoyed or has had a bad day, that mood can rub off on others. Due to this, Theresa says that the dancers will try to be in the best mood possible come rehearsal. Asha reiterated this sentiment by saying that one might be surprised how often the group has small, back and forth arguments. At the end of the day, their dancing is their life. Some of the dancers even say that it’s their second full-time job.
Despite the demands of dancing, and the level of commitment it takes to be successful, the group leans on one another when life is difficult. Many of the dancers credit their similar upbringings and similar troubles as the key to making things work. They support each other in real life just as much as they support each other on the stage, and this consistent loyalty and love towards one another and their craft brings magic to their moves.
The dancers slide, thrust, wiggle and pop as one. The power and forceful grace they portray can be described in no other way than mesmerizing. If you look closely, though, each dancer brings his or her own story and energy. The individuality that fuses together in their choreography can be better understood after learning more ab
out each dancer because, like any art form, the mediums and juxtaposing elements create the beauty, depth, and catches the interest.
The Writers from Penn State Berks
• Megan Antosy (Business, and Professional Writing Major)
• Symone Corbin (Communication Arts and Sciences Major)
• Imane Guisse (Global Studies Major)
• Rachel Hayes (Professional Writing Major)
• Chelsea Watts (Professional Writing Major)
Web Site Design and Creation by:
Megan Antosy • Symone Corbin • Imane Guisse
with an assist from Michelle Hnath
We are Reading: Dancing in the City was sponsored by The Penn State Berks Center for Service Learning and Community-Based Research. We offer our thanks to everyone who supported this project:
The Grout Kauffman Endowment for the Arts
Michelle Hnath, Program Assistant, Penn State Berks Center for Service Learning and Community-Based Research
Dr. R. Keith Hillkirk, Chancellor, Penn State Berks
Dr. Paul Esqueda, Sr. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Penn State Berks
Dr. Heidi Mau, Assistant Professor of Communications, Albright College
Willow Street Pictures, West Lawn, Pennsylvania