This Is Reading

"This is Reading", a performance art installation written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, was performed in Reading in July 2017. 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. 

Dancer: Jaymes Williams Photo: Willow Street Pictures

It was another Wednesday for Jaymes. He and Ashanique were teaching their weekly dance to kids at the Goggle Works dance studio. However, this particular Wednesday they had visitors observing the class. Jaymes was aware that these visitors were part of the Reading Film Festival and were working on a project called “This Is Reading”. They needed a video of different dancers around Reading, so James volunteered his class to be a part of the promo video. But then the producers had more interest in Jaymes and Ashanique, “We want you guys to be in the show.” They didn’t think too much of it in fear it would be just another show they would be expected to perform for free. After a little more communication, Jaymes found that they were in fact going to be paid, this was going to be serious for them. The producers were interested if they had any more dancer friends, and Jaymes did not hesitate to share the opportunity.

When Jaymes and Asha told Stephanie about This is Reading and asked her if she wanted to audition, she immediately jumped at the opportunity. As primarily a hip-hop dancer, she had different expectations than what she was met with at the audition. Not being familiar with the choreography and the style was unsettling, but it gave her the opportunity to learn something new, which she wanted to take advantage of. Waiting and waiting on the email about whether she made it or not was a process – a process that eventually ended with the confirmation that she was, in fact, one of the This is Reading dancers. This news was made even better when she found out that she would be dancing along not only with people she had danced with before, but with a group of her closest friends – Theresa, Jaymes, Asha, Caliph, and Liyanah. Before this group of dancing friends took their talents to the Franklin Street Railroad Station, they were always laughing and having a good time, and for Stephanie, being able to share the This is

Reading experience together only brought the group closer together.

Dancer: Stephanie Seda Photo: Willow Street Pictures
Dancer: Liyanah Sheriff Photo: Willow Street Pictures

“IT WAS LIT,” said Liyanah Mann, one of six local members of the This is Reading

dancers who were from Reading. Liyanah describes this invigorating and monumental experience that changed the direction of her life. The day she found out she was going to dance in the name of Reading. According to Liyanah, at first the casting of dancers was not open to everyone. They required a certain level of diversity that had already been met. This was communicated by Jaymes, another dancer in the group. Jaymes, had soon alerted the group via group chat that the casting of dancers had finally opened to anyone willing to audition. Liyanah, recalls just “coming with herself” as she was taught choreography by Sam, an assistant choreographer. They were assessed individually by how fast they could pick up the dance and how good they looked while doing it. Liyanah, recalls being taught “an old school style that was dope.” Soon they were separated into groups to audition with the choreography that was previously taught, along with some freestyle moves that was their own. Liyanah, knew that she had the dance down pat because she was a naturally fast learner. After everyone auditioned they were not told immediately about who had made it. Dancers where chosen and split into two groups of paid dancers and voluntary dancers. Liyanah, remembers how she and her group

members kept looking at their phones asking themselves “did we make it?! They anxious and impatient. Liyanah, felt confident but this was her first time auditioning for something that was big. Although she can’t remember where she was when she found out. She remembers the feeling of seeing her name in an email as one of the paid dancers! She was pumped, and shared this feeling of excitement in a group chat with her group members that had also made the cut!

Theresa found out about This is Reading through the Reading High Dance Team

Facebook. She talked it over with Stephanie and asked if she would go with Theresa.

Theresa was nervous to audition and had a feeling during the auditions that she wasn’t going to get picked. Theresa was chosen as a background dancer.

Theresa found out about This is Reading through the Reading High Dance Team

Facebook. She talked it over with Stephanie and asked if she would go with Theresa.

Theresa was nervous to audition and had a feeling during the auditions that she wasn’t going to get picked. Theresa was chosen as a background dancer.

Dancer: Caliph Shabazz  Photo: Willow Street Pictures

Caliph remembers getting a call from Alexis, one of This Is Reading’s directors, asking him to audition. Alexis knew Caliph through his time performing at the Olivet Center for the Arts. He remembers being shocked that someone would want him to be a part of such a performance. Caliph shared is shock with his friend Sequoia, another member of the Center for the Arts. “I went to her and talked to her about it, and she was like, “You should do it. You’re phenomenal.” I didn’t know she saw me as that person.” Caliph decided to audition, but was still scared of putting himself out there and horrified at the audition process. He found comfort when he was told that his fellow dancers from his group were also auditioning. And together, they all became a part of a show that would allow them to share what they know about their home in the best way they could, through dance.

Dancer: Theresa Gonzalez  Photo: Willow Street Pictures

It was at City Park, where Asha danced to music blasting out of cars with other Reading High graduates, that she learned of This Is Reading. Asha had danced for most of her life, whether it was at youth programs in New York City, as a cheerleader in school, or on Reading High’s dance team. The directors of This Is Reading needed more dancers for their show, and they looked to those in Reading to round out their performance group. Excited by the opportunity to dance in a professional setting, Asha was quick to audition. She thought the production was new and exciting and looked forward to the ability to tell the story of Reading, including hers, through movement and dance. The audition went well, as did the production itself, and Asha was left feeling that her drive to dance professionally was bigger than ever before.

Dancer: Ashanique Monlyn  Photo: Willow Street Pictures

Photo Credits: Dance Photos at top without credit: Michelle Hnath, Head shots: Willow Street Pictures

©2018 We Are Reading Dancers and Penn State Berks Writers