When the Manhattan Sideways team and I visited the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2017, we were greeted by Robert Garland, the director of the school and the resident choreographer. He was eager to give us a personal tour of the space and to share their remarkable story with us. Since our visit was in the summertime, regular classes were not in session. Instead, we observed their Summer Intensive program, which Robert told us features the “crème de la crème of the youth dance scene. ” Every year, the school holds a national audition tour to select participants for the program, though the Summer Intensive also has many returning students. In fact, Robert has known some of these aspiring dancers since they were only seven years old. During our first visit, we sat in on a beginner’s pointe class, a modern dance class, and a men’s class. It was heartwarming to see the kids’ engagement, as they were instructed with equal measures of discipline and fun. They were happy to show us heir latest lesson in properly tying the ribbons on their pointe shoes before going through their regular barre exercises. It was equally as exciting to return the following week for a chance to see the rehearsals for the dance company, where we glimpsed Robert in his role as resident choreographer. Beyond the actual dancing, we also observed examples of their supplementary studies, through which students can learn about dance history, musical theory, and a range of other subjects that complement their in-class training. The Summer Intensive, Robert explained, is basically a condensed version of what the Dance Theatre of Harlem does year-round. The school is divided into different programs based on skill level, consisting of a Tendu Program for children between the ages of three and eight and Lower School and Upper School programs designed for progressively more experienced students. As an additional offering, the Dance Theatre has a Professional Training Program that grants participants a certificate upon completing three years of study. All programs follow the same methodology of exposing students to a wide range of styles and techniques, from tap to jazz to West African, while simultaneously providing them with a well-rounded understanding of the craft via supplementary studies. These studies even include subjects like sewing and costume design, educating students in anything that might prove relevant to their possible futures as dancers. We were impressed to learn that Dance Theatre of Harlem does not stop at being a school and dance company; it also has a community outreach program through which it holds workshops and assemblies in public schools to expose children to the arts. This is in addition to the Sunday Matinee series, during which students of the company perform for the public, and audience members are encouraged to meet the artists after a show. After receiving a tour of the space and a taste of the usual class routines, we sat down with Robert to hear a bit of history of the school. It was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, two renowned figures in the dance world. Mitchell, a MacArthur Fellow and National Medal of Arts recipient, was the second African American member of the New York City Ballet, where he remained for eleven years. He helped establish dance companies in Washington, D. C. and Brazil before deciding to form his own dance company in Harlem, the neighborhood where he was raised. His decision was motivated by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., since it sparked in him a desire to create better opportunities for young people in his community. Robert proposed a partnership with Karel Shook, another former member of the New York City Ballet, who was well known as a ballet instructor and had established the Studio of Dance Arts. Together, they launched Dance Theatre of Harlem with a mere thirty students in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church on 141st street. Within two months, however, the school grew to five hundred students. Two years later, the company had its debut performance, making history as the first African American ballet company. Because of rapid expansion, the school quickly needed a new location. When Mitchell got wind of a former garage available on 152nd street, he transformed it into the high-ceilinged, well-equipped dance studio that still houses the school today.
This cozy coffee shop that doubles as a wine bar at night was an unexpected but delightful find on 145th street. It seemed like the perfect place to settle in and work for an afternoon, fueled by a selection of snacks and drinks. When we stopped by in 2017, unable to resist the lure of the gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, there were several people who had precisely that idea, their laptops and coffee cups within easy reach. The space is comfortable and almost rustic, with wooden furniture and burlap-covered pillows stamped with countries known for their coffee beans. Noticing our fascination with the décor, Chung, the owner, revealed that he held a contest for City College New York students to design the café’s interior, which he then constructed with the help of some friends. Chung explained that he opened Sugar Hill Café in 2015 as a cool side venture to complement his primary business in real estate. When asked why he decided to also make it into a nightlife spot by serving wine, he quipped, “Because people can’t drink coffee all day. ”
Tucked away on an upper floor of the Church of the Intercession sits the office of Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders. The space is a riot of color: paintings hang on the wall, piñatas and cut-out streamers dangle from the ceiling, and shelves of ceramics, jewelry, and embroidered cloth line the room. In the far corner, a man sits at a desk painting a vase with meticulous strokes. Juan Aguirre, executive director of Mano a Mano, informed me that the artist was inspired by the floral pattern traditionally used in embroidery - by painting instead of sewing, the artist was putting his own twist on the tradition. Juan’s passion for Mexican culture and art is palpable. Our conversation covered everything from the history and significance of depictions of Our Lady of Guadalupe (she is at once a religious, national, and artistic symbol) to the indigenous and African roots of Veracruz’s Son Jarocho music to the demographics of New York’s Mexican community. “Mexico, when you think about it, it’s really a little world in itself, ” Juan explained. “It’s dance. It’s music. It’s being creative with your hands. ”Perhaps unsurprisingly, the word “tradition” came up frequently as we talked. According to their website, Mano a Mano is a nonprofit organization “dedicating to celebrating Mexican culture and promoting the understanding of Mexican traditions through arts, culture, humanities and annual celebrations of holidays. ” But what counts as tradition? “A lot of Mexican culture is sort of like a "synchretism. " It’s two things that came together. So we have native ideals and European ideals that merged into one and produced a new thinking, a new way of looking at the world, ” Juan told me. “For us, ‘traditional’ means anything older - something that goes back fifty years or beyond and that is passed on from generation to generation. It’s what we call folk. ”Mano a Mano’s work is divided into three main sectors: public events, educational programming, and support for artists of Mexican origin. All of Mano a Mano’s programming is completely bilingual in English and Spanish, so as to be as inclusive as possible. Their public events consist largely of celebrations of Mexican holidays, including Children’s Day, Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead, Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Posadas/Christmas. The events take place at various locations around the city and attract large crowds of Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike. For their “Mexico in New York” programs, Mano a Mano visits schools, senior centers, and other nonprofits where they put on performances, workshops, and talks aimed at sharing Mexican culture. The organization also acts as a knowledge center for artists by connecting them with various grants and opportunities. In addition, Mano a Mano often provides interpretation services in legal or health matters for Mexicans in the city who speak one of Mexico’s indigenous languages and little to no Spanish or English. The organization started in 2001, when a committee on Mexican artists was founded at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Though Mexicans now make up the third largest Hispanic group in New York, this is a fairly recent development. In the early aughts, the Mexican population in New York was growing quickly, and, although there were many organizations dedicated to helping this budding community, the committee members recognized a need for one that provided support specifically for Mexican arts. In 2006, the committee became a nonprofit in its own right, and Mano a Mano was born. For his part, Juan joined Mano a Mano in 2011. “When I was growing up in New York, this wasn’t available, ” he said, gesturing at the room. “I remember how difficult it was trying to relate to other people. Mexican culture and Mexican arts are ingrained in us growing up. They are a central part of our traditions and our way of living. It was important for me to show the richness of the culture to people who are of Mexican origin and to those who are not. I think that the more people discover the history and the culture of Mexico, they fall in love with it. They understand it and they want to be part of it. ”