Dance is my expression that imprints on everyone's soul.
Photo Credit: Willow Street Pictures
Keep on Digging (and Dancing)
Spoken by Caliph Shabazz
Written by Rachel Hayes
To Caliph Shabazz, dancing provides the opportunity to experience the best version of himself that he could possibly be. “I feel like a different person. Someone that I wanna be, but then I’m only that person when I’m dancing. It gives me this feeling like I can do anything in the world, like I can take over the world and really do what I want.”
Caliph, who was born at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York, New York, on March 10, 1999, has always danced. The son of a dancer, Caliph jokes that after he was born, the first thing he started to do was dance. His mother, who had attended a dance school in Manhattan, was confused by his quick development of moves. To Caliph, his quick pick-up of dancing makes sense. If he hears a beat, he has to move. “I can’t sit still. I don’t know why.” At nineteen years old, nothing has changed, at least not in regard to dancing.
At age six, Caliph was already involved in one of New York City’s Boys and Girls clubs, learning tap dancing and musical dances. With the support of the club, and the comfort of being around other dancers, he began to share his creativity by creating his own dances.
The atmosphere and landscape of New York furthered Caliph’s ability to perform. By age twelve, along with a few other dancers, Caliph would venture around the block stopping at houses along the way to dance at a party. “My mom was fine with going out... New York is like, you’re right there. Your house is just down the block. Everything is close. I would go out until two o’clock in the morning with my friends, dancing at different parties.”
As Caliph grew into a teenager and began attending Martin Luther King Campus Arts and Technology High School, his focus shifted from dancing and onto his studies, as well as an after-school Squash program.
It was only after Caliph and his mom packed up their bags and moved to Reading that dancing once again became a part of his life. New York’s high cost of living, problems with the landlord, and his mother’s desire to live in a house rather than an apartment prompted the pair to begin to look into new locations. At fourteen years old, Caliph was in a whole new state and a very different city. The ability to walk anywhere he wanted or needed to go was no longer an option while living in Reading. Adjusting to high school in a new city was also a challenge. “When I came here I was awkward, so I really didn’t talk to a lot of people.” Classmates approached Caliph though, and soon he became more comfortable meeting people halfway.
By the middle of ninth grade, and his first year at Reading High School, Caliph had made a lot of friends. One in particular, Naji, was a member of the school’s dance team and introduced Caliph to the dancers and coach. At first, given the dynamics of the team and what seemed to him as the intimidating nature of the coach, Ms. Davis, Caliph was too scared to be a part of the team. However, after getting to know Ms. Davis, he began to see her goofier side and decided to start dancing again.
With all things considered, Naji seems to have been the catalyst for Caliph’s journey back to dance. Not only did she introduce him to Reading Dance Team, she brought him along with her to Olivet Center for the Arts, an arts-focused unit of Reading’s Olivet Boys and Girls Club. At the time, Naji was part of the cast for the Club’s production of Aladdin; along with her brother, Naji played the magic carpet. Caliph would wait for her to finish rehearsal and afterwards they would dance, practicing the choreography for the dance team’s performances. They would also create dance routines, but Caliph was not yet comfortable enough to share his dances with the team.
To let out creativity, he joined Naji at the Olivet Center for the Arts, first as a member and then as an instructor. Caliph began teaching dance with Olivet’s antidrug/alcohol/violence performance group, Berk’s Pride. The group visited local schools and spread awareness about the effects of drug and alcohol abuse by performing skits. At only fifteen years old, and approximately a year after moving to Reading, Caliph took on a leadership role in an effort to try and better the community he now called home:
I felt that I needed to get involved. It just seemed... something about the city was just
like, help. I researched Reading before I moved here, too. I researched it and it said, “Oh. It’s the worst city. The poorest city of America.” I just thought, “Well, that’s really
tragic.” So, I guess I felt entitled to do something. You know, just give back since I
Caliph is more than aware that his home of Reading has its fair share of problems. As a member of the LGBTQ community himself, he recognizes the city’s homophobia and transphobia. Caliph takes part in a weekly group called Spectrum, which teaches and spreads awareness about the gender spectrum, as well as sexual identity and sex, in general. He acknowledges that the group taught him a lot about the complexities facing LGBTQ issues. “I feel like people should be comfortable in their own skin. Everybody deserves a chance it it’s just... that’s what I feel I need to put out there, too. I know I deserve a chance. I know a lot of people deserve chances and don’t really get them, but they still deserve them.” As a member of the dancing community, Caliph believes his sexuality is more accepted than in other social circles, but that sometimes race becomes an issue. “When we were offered to perform places, I know people would have their prejudice, that us being dark skinned, we would be more “thuggish.” More often than not, though, he notes that such prejudice is rare, and despite how he identifies and despite the communities he belongs to, doesn’t feel that bigotry affects his life, or his dancing, too much.
If anything, Caliph’s dancing is most affected by the thoughts in his own head, but it’s those thoughts that also drives his creativity. As a sufferer of depression and bipolar disorder, dancing is a mechanism to cope for Caliph. “Everybody, all my life, told me I needed an outlet, because I would just hit things. I don’t know why. That was just me reacting to certain things.” Luckily for Caliph, his family saw something in him that he couldn’t quite see himself: talent. But on the other hand, many others told him that he wasn’t good enough, and their words seemed louder than his family’s. While he knew that he was good, he was too scared to show his moves based on the fear of what others would think. “So when I started [to dance], I would talk to my grandma about these things and she’d be like, “You’re fine the way you are. You just need to express yourself.”
Caliph’s grandmother, who passed away two years ago, was big on talent. Talent, to her, was a thing not to be wasted, and when Caliph finally took her words to heart, dancing became the thing that made him feel normal. When he talks about his grandmother, he smiles:
She was just that person rooting in the background for me every time I’ve done
something. Physically, she’s not here right now, but I just know in the back of my head I hear her voice every single day saying, “I know you can do it! I know you can do it! Just put your mind to it! Don’t give up!” That was just the support I was used to with her. I was just so happy and motivated, because she was the person who would motivate me through everything, and she was the closest person to me because she would just always be there when I needed somebody.
Caliph’s grandmother was a huge supporter of his dancing. Caliph recalls being in her kitchen, doing her dishes, and dancing. His grandmother, who was in a wheelchair, shared his urge to dance and move around when any music played. She was astonished the first time she saw him dance, but couldn’t get enough of his moves. As he danced and moved around her house, she would exclaim, “Go ‘head, Liphy! Bust a move!” It’s hard for Caliph to talk about his grandmother. “She was proud of me. I know that for sure. She still is. I just hope she’s okay. Everything I’ve done, everything I wanted to be, everything I am, she supported. I know she’s just proud of my dancing and that she loved my dancing. I know she would want me to go far with something that I wanted to do myself.” Caliph notes that his mother has also played a big role in the person he has become today. “I’ve gone through some hard obstacles and doing dance, I would just look back and see what my mom has gone through and I’m just like, if she didn’t give up, why would I give up now?”
Caliph didn’t give up. As his years in high school progressed, so did his relationship with the dance team and Ms. Davis. The summer before his senior year, Ms. Davis organized and alumni team, and though he was still a current student, Caliph was allowed to participate and dance with the group. Over the summer, the group met at Reading’s City Park. Past students played music from their car speakers and under the sun’s heat the group choreographed new dances. It was there, at City Park, where Caliph formed new relationships and strengthened past friendships with those he dances with now: Jaymes, Liyanah, Theresa, Stephanie and Ashanique.
Dancing with the alumni team was comforting to Caliph because of how accepting and open the group was to new ideas.
It was from there that Caliph, Jaymes, Liyanah, Theresa, Stephanie and Ashanique started dancing together, formed their own group. Soon after, they each got calls from This Is Reading, an art and performance installation that aimed to tell Reading’s troubled story. They each auditioned and were invited to be a part of the show. Caliph was challenged by the production process. He had never danced or worked so hard in his life, and he had never been in such a professional position with dancing. This Is Reading showed Caliph how much he wanted dance to be a career though, especially since their performances had such an impact on his community.
“People were happy that these young adults were doing something serious that affected our community in this creative and artistic way.” Caliph believes that This Is Reading showed people that anyone can do something to change their community and that their performance made people realize the kind of role art can play in creating change. He also believes that Reading has a long way to go, and that embracing and creating more involvement in the art community needs to be more of a priority. Caliph is aware that budget cuts are shutting down art classes of all kinds, and imagines that the break from a relationship with the community’s artists will further people’s fear of Reading. “I know people are scared to even enter Reading. Just come through Penn Street, follow the Penn Street Bridge and just drive through Penn Street. People are scared to do that. I just wish we could portray things in a better way, instead of just being portrayed as this horrible city.” To Caliph, art and performances is the answer to a more positive portrayal:
If we can sit here and dance in Reading, I feel like people will be more comfortable
coming here. If we have more involved shows like This Is Reading, people would come into Reading. I know that most of the people I saw at This Is Reading, I had never seen them ever. And the question they mostly asked us was, “Are you from Reading? Are you a local?” And we are. And I felt so confused about it. Dancing fits in by showing how comfortable we are dancing in the city, going out there and putting ourselves out there and dancing and everything, and that’s just something new. It’s just something.
Caliph knows that dancing, and art in general, has a magical way of bring people from all walks of life closer together, but he realizes that there is more to the troubles of Reading and that dancing alone is not enough to mend those issues. But dancing is a start, it’s something he can do to contribute to the change. After all, Reading has given Caliph a lot to be thankful for and he has always felt the need to give back. He recognizes that Reading has had a profound impact on the man he is today. Moving to Reading at fourteen shaped Caliph into an adult and taught him wisdom on things that he was blind to before.
As a performer, though, Reading feels like a tarpit to Caliph. While the arts are a vital part in resuscitating the city, artists continually struggle to make ends meet. They find they must find other jobs to support themselves, but then are left with little time to pursue their passions. “Just having an ultimatum in your head... Do you want to work or do you want to dance? Do you want to follow your dreams or do you want money to get out? You know? And it’s just hard to try and combine those things ‘cause it’s always separate.”
Caliph mostly dreams of being paid to do something he loves. He hopes to one day work dancing for a celebrity. Mostly, however, he just wants to perform. The secret to following those dreams, he believes, is to keep digging. “It just seems like there’s no way to get out [of Reading], but you have to just keep digging. Keep digging. People just give up. You just won’t get nowhere giving up.”