Two weeks after gang murders, a reason for youth to dance in Rogers Park
By Bob Spoerl
They jived and dipped and grooved and spun and yelled and swayed and made the wind at times seem a step behind.
The “they” are creative dancers living and performing in Rogers Park.
One night after the Grammy’s, a group of young dancers from the neighborhood known as 808s—the name is an ode to loud hip hop music, 808 being the penal code for noise violation—teamed up with a professional dance company from the far North Side, Phoenix Rising, to produce a dance show called “Lover’s Lane.”
It was only several weeks after two young men were shot and killed near Howard Street in Rogers Park.
More than 100 residents cheered on the young people now that 808s has become a mini phenomenon in the neighborhood. The youth “rocked the block,” in the words of one of the hosts for the night, Pastor Karl Adair of North Shore Church.
“When you see young people getting together at an early age like this, they are laying the foundation for their future,” Angela Adair, wife of Pastor Karl and co-host, said.
The members of 808s dance group range from pre-teen movers to 23 year-old shakers. There are about two-dozen dancers with the team at any given time. 808s started July 2011 when brothers Jermaine and Jerrell Hawk teamed up with Thomas “Bud” Sanders and Dominique Johns.
Sanders is currently searching for a job; neither of the Hawk brothers work. 808s takes up so much of their waking hours that performing and rehearsing and teaching dance moves has become a full-time, albeit unpaid, commitment. Johns said she is taking a break from 808s as she earns a certified nursing assistant license in Urbana.
The next big plan for 808s is to get the kids better trained in dancing and also to recruit members from all over Chicago, dipping into the South side, where the Hawk brothers currently live with family.
“We envision doing a play – a type of drama and anti-violent dance because Howard St. and Morse Ave. have a bad rap,” Sanders said.
“We want to let people know how the youth really feel about the violence toward each other,” he said.
Sanders and 808s want the drama to offer this message: There should be no limits about where youth can gather in their own community.
The young adults started 808s on mission to empower youth through dance. Family Matters, a family-strengthening advocacy group in Rogers Park, supports the 808s initiative. The dance team seeks to offer a sense of community to the young men and women involved.
It’s a nonviolent safe haven in the too often violent patch where Chicago meets Evanston.
It might seem a bit unusual for a professional group of dancers to collaborate with a six-month old ragtag dance team like 808s. But Phoenix Rising did just that when it paired with 808s.
“People tend to think that professional dancers are aloof and untouchable; when in fact, we are the opposite,” Amy Russell, Phoenix Rising producer said in an email after the show. “We love to share our art with anyone and everyone that will listen.”
Strictly speaking, Phoenix Rising is a not-for-profit professional multimedia arts company in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status. Unlike a dance team, the company consists of people who have decades of experience training and years of professional dancing experience under their belts.
Even though Rising is a professional dance company, the members decided to observe and let 808s take charge of the recent show. They switched off dancing every other song with 808s.
“We only stepped in and offered advice when things were really derailing,” Russell said.
At times there were problems. The show didn’t go as planned from a technical standpoint. Glitches in the music tracks brought some awkward, unplanned breaks. One of the leaders of 808s, 22-year-old Jermaine Hawk, kept cool and tried to relax the crowd.
“Sorry guys, bare with us please,” he said, hunched over, frozen and waiting to make his next move.
In addition to the sound difficulties, the flow of the show waned a bit at times. That’s where the expertise of an experienced performer such as Russell might help improve the performance of the developing 808s team.
“As a professional producers, I want to teach these guys everything they need to know to have a great show every time,” Russell said.
For the next show, she envisions 808s in an apprentice position, learning from professionals how to keep a show tight and smooth. Russell foresees no problem in teaching them.
“They are like sponges absorbing information and movement that has never been available to them before,” she said.
One of the hardest parts is to channel the enthusiasm the dancers show into a disciplined, choreographed series of movements. “It’s all a matter of refocusing energy,” Russell said.
There was no lack of energy at the Feb. 13 Lover’s Lane performance. After being introduced, 808s burst out of a side door into the Wyllie B. White Field House gymnasium on Howard St. A sea of confident and young black dancers wearing white t-shirts with text on it reading “808s” appeared.
Some of the young men wore shirts that said, “Girls Heart my Swag” with a red heart in place of the word. Four of the older dancers held microphones and rapped the lyrics to a song they put together.
Although the sound system made it difficult to understand, it came off like a sort of theme song for the group.
Words do a bit of a disservice to the group since they combine synchronized hip hop dance movements with freestyle leg and arm rotations – rapid, rapid spinning – along with breaking out into backflips and random gymnastic moves to create a somewhat fragmented but overall energetic and provocative show. It sort of hits a spectator in the face. Think Michael Jackson, and then speed the tape up.
“This was the first time I have seen the 808s perform, and I was impressed,” Rogers Park business owner and resident Karen Werner said. “They were talented, energetic and really connected with their audience—they had a great enthusiastic positive attitude and kept persevering with grace.”
Jerome Williams, a case manager at the Howard Area Community Center, was at the performance. At his day job, Williams tries to help young men and women who come from broken or low-income homes find paying jobs with meaning. “At this event you see the diversity of the community,” said Williams.
“After attending more than 20 years of events North of Howard, last night’s performance only bothered me in that I know there were some folks from outside the neighborhood who might have been uncomfortable,” said Ald. Joe Moore [49th] who also attended the performance. “It was gritty, real and very disorganized. Par for the course North of Howard.”
Mike Glasser, owner of rogerspark.com, has been a mentor to the young men and women of 808s. He hosts them at his apartment when the group needs a place to meet or just relax, provides transportation for the team and challenges them to move forward. He helped organize community members, groups and advertisers for the Lovers Lane event. Glasser is essentially a role model for the young people.
A few hours after the show, Glasser sent a thank you email to friends who came to the performance or have supported 808s.
“I’ll be honest: Certain aspects of the show made me feel uncomfortable,” Glasser said, including “crotch grabbing and underwear showing.”
Having said that, Glasser noted the successes. The dancers learned lessons: “Most of us learn a heck of a lot more from our mistakes than by a constant string of successes,” he said.
And most importantly, the young men and women of 808s pulled off a show. “With all of the violence and other distractions facing these young people, the fact that they did work hard and remained focused on learning these dance skills, while interacting with and learning from the fabulous people of the Phoenix Rising Chicago dance company, is a victory of sorts,” Glasser said.
“There has been unease in the streets, but tonight there was something productive happening the neighborhood gym,” he said.
Photos courtesy of: Thomas Kubik from TK Photography
* Bob Spoerl is a young journalist residing in Rogers Park. He attends the Medill school of Journalism and interned for the WTTW news hour ‘Chicago Tonight.’ Before Medill, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy from Loyola, where he developed an affection for Rogers Park. Read his contributions at rogerspark.com.
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