Detroit is a city that receives an overwhelming amount of negative media attention with its high crime rate and its seemingly hopeless high unemployment rate. At the same time, Detroit is a city with an incredible history of determination, culture, and entrepreneurship. What is it that we are not seeing through our everyday media snapshots? Is Detroit actually as destitute as it sounds?
As a dancer and person interested in understanding dance’s role in building up communities, I am fascinated by Detroit. To varying degrees, the global dance community is often a great example of the adage that need breeds creativity. It is often in places that appear destitute, that dance and other arts communities spring up, partially because of low cost of living. These communities then become integral to rebuilding social, political, and economic networks.
I’ve heard whispers now and again that Detroit is bubbling with a new creative energy. A few months ago, as I faced graduating college with a degree in Dance and International Affairs, I wondered whether Detroit might be the place for me. Through the help of a travel stipend from The George Washington University, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Detroit in March to see for myself how dance was faring in there and how it might lend a new lens to how we understand the city.
Dancing in Detroit
It’s a Wednesday in March, it’s 19 degrees outside, and it’s snowing. I step outside and I see Detroit’s streets are busy as ever with cars carefully navigating the snow and potholes after a winter of challenging weather. I walk into downtown Detroit. Along the way, a gentleman I hear walking behind me catches up, pauses, and says, “Hello! How are you today?” “I’m doing well, thank you,” I respond. “How are you?” “Great, thanks!” he says before continuing on his way.
I keep walking down Woodward Avenue, passing by a couple of churches assisting Detroit’s homeless community with food, shelter, and other resources. A few blocks down, I come across a window display advertising an organization called “D:Hive Detroit.” Next-door is its pilot project “Kidpreneur.” I stepped inside. On a bulletin board I noticed a few ads: “Call for Artists! Detroit Palmer Park Art Fair,” “What’s your best idea for the arts? Apply for funding via the Knight Arts Challenge,” and “Matrix Theater Company presents Collected Stories.”
The man at the front desk greets me. He explains that D:Hive is like Detroit’s welcome center, and that it simultaneously provides training for entrepreneurs in the area that have great ideas, but may not know how to navigate practically making it happen. He mentions that the training classes have been consistently filled, and that he’s seen dozens and dozens of people come through the shop with fascinating ideas for socially minded business startups in Detroit.
I ask about whether there have been any projects he saw involved with the arts. “Oh yes,” he says. He speaks about “Shakespeare in Detroit,” a theater company dedicated to presenting Shakespeare Detroit-style, about the Heidelberg Project that makes artworks of abandoned buildings, the Knight Art Foundation that provides funds for arts-related startups, African dance performances at the Charles H. Wright museum, tap dancing at the Virgil Carr Center, free performances at the Detroit Institute of Art on Fridays, the Detroit Public School system’s dance program called All City Detroit, among a number of other projects.
Had the arts scene been affected by the economic downturn of the city? I ask. In relation to funding, maybe yes, he says. But dancing had never stopped being a part of the fiber of the people that make up the city. “Have you heard of the “Jit”?” he asks. He explains that it’s Detroit’s dance, that it was born in Detroit and people still dance it in the streets and different venues. He excitedly shared that Hardcore Detroit, a Detroit-based breakdancing crew, was producing a documentary on the Jit for release in May of this year.
Later that day I had the chance to speak with Harriet Berg, an instrumental figure in bringing modern dance to Detroit in the 1940s. She spoke of the vibrant history of different dance groups in the city, including but certainly not limited to Mexican, Polish, and ballet groups, which made for a deeply rooted appreciation and love of dance among Detroiters. She suggested that this made it easy to find students for modern dance classes. At the time of her retirement in 2009 as a modern dance teacher from the Berman Jewish Community Center, she personally still had 400 students.
Trenton School of Dance, founded in 1972 by Judy Shamanski, was very kind to open its doors to me the next day. After the historic riots of the 1960s that left significant tension among Detroit community members, many Detroiters moved out of Detroit’s city center and into surrounding suburbs. In these suburbs, dozens of dance studios have popped up over the last fifty years (Yellow Pages cites at least 97 different studios). These studios have fostered an ongoing love and practice of dance including ballet, tap, Irish dancing, hip hop, jazz, and most recently, liturgical dance. The Trenton School of Dance was one of the foremost of these studios and remains an integral part of Detroit’s dance community.
I had the chance to speak with a representative of a local congressman’s office in Detroit towards the end of my visit, and learned that despite a rocky social, economic, and political metropolitan history, local politician Congressman Conyers has remained an avid supporter of Detroit’s arts. Though budget cuts to educational and arts programs have been a challenge, Congressman Conyers continues to support jazz, dance, and other arts initiatives by helping with grants, putting on shows, and other resources. He is a strong believer that the arts are an integral part of the city’s life and youth’s future.
Detroit’s dance paints a significantly more vibrant, dynamic, and hopeful picture of Detroit than we often see. It describes the vitality of the people that make up the city and the future of Detroit. It describes people like Meredith Shamanski, the new director of Trenton School of Dance, committed to sharing her love of dance with her community. It describes people like Adriel Ruben of YFX Physical Theater, devoted to sharing dance’s capacity towards a constructive and positive new direction for Detroit. It describes people like Haleem Rasul of Hardcore Detroit, excited about building a new city with a combination of Detroit’s rich dance history and new dance movements towards a dynamic new story. It describes collaboration among Detroiters, local companies, and political figures to realize a common goal. It is these community members that make up the city’s future.
One community-member, Joori Jung, paints a particularly vibrant picture of Detroit. Joori, founder of a community arts center ARTLAB J, came to Detroit devoted to making time and space for love of dance to bring community members of all backgrounds together to build up their city.
Joori founded ARTLAB J two years ago shortly after arriving in Detroit. After experiencing her own challenges as a dancer and choreographer for several years, she felt her own feelings of desolation mirrored in the city. At the same time, she saw the city presenting her inviting blank stage and underlying creative energy to start fresh. She felt that she could realize her dreams as a dancer and choreographer in Detroit, and that her experiences and talents could collaboratively contribute to building up a new Detroit. She saw that the city had many excellent dancers, but that most of them with professional aspirations ended up leaving the city. There didn’t seem to be enough opportunities for professional growth, access to space for rehearsal, or a strong professional dance community to dive into.
Joori decided that she would make it possible for dancers to stay, thrive, and live their love of dance in Detroit. She would make a space for all dance-lovers in Detroit to rehearse, perform, collaborate, share ideas, or just watch dance. That space became ARTLAB J.
Joori also started ARTLAB J Dance Company, a professional company committed to providing local dancers with the opportunity to grow. Since its foundation, ARTLAB J Dance Company has auditioned and hired ten local dance company members, hosts five choreography showcases per year open to the entire Detroit community, hosts the Detroit Dance Festival, and is generally involved in supporting local artists. Charlie Howard, recently brought into ARTLAB J Dance Company and administrative team to help with business development, has been integral to expanding ARTLAB J’s reach. In addition to being highly hospitable, welcoming, and kind, he has a strong passion for Detroit’s history and future. He brings a complementary devotion to a new vision of Detroit to ARTLAB J’s mission. He is not alone in his positive and driven energy. All ARTLAB J dancers seem to share a commitment to building Detroit’s community through dance.
One audience member at a recent ARTLAB J choreography showcase, there to see his wife perform, commented that since arriving back to Detroit after a time away, he hadn’t seen a more representative collection of Detroit’s diverse community than in that audience. He saw it as picture of what he hoped all of Detroit would become.
ARTLAB J brings together Detroiters’ commitment to collaboratively building a new and positive city through a shared love of dance.
Though I only spent just under a week in Detroit, I had the remarkable chance to observe and participate in a wide range of creative and dynamic community activities. I arrived not knowing what I would find given the dismal stories that I read in my daily Google News visits. I left amazed at a brilliant city full of fantastically entrepreneurial people rebuilding a positive new Detroit.
ARTLAB J is an excellent example of what is happening all over Detroit. Committed Detroiters are gathering together everyday to build up a new vision of their city. Dance is one of many lenses through which we can see the city’s hope for a positive rebuilding. Detroit is filled with creativity, passion and opportunity.
If you’re a passionate community member invested in working with others towards realizing all of the tremendous potential the city holds for a strong and successful future, maybe Detroit is the right place for you too!