Art Imitates Life
Penn State Berks and Albright College students partner with “We Are Reading” dancers to tell their story
WYOMISSING, PA––What started as a class project has grown into an intimate look inside the lives of six hip hop dancers from the City of Reading. Students from Penn State Berks and Albright College have partnered with some of the dancers who performed in “This Is Reading,” a performance art installation unveiled in 2017, to publish a book titled “We Are Reading: Dancing in the City.” A book launch event will be held on Wednesday, May 1, from 5-7 p.m. in Studio 411 of the GoogleWorks Center for the Arts, 201 Washington Street in Reading. This event will feature performances by the dancers and free copies of the book for the first 150 attendees.
For the project, five Penn State Berks student writers and 17 student designers from Albright worked with the dancers who were recruited to perform in “This Is Reading” alongside professional dancers from Philadelphia and New York in 2017. The dancers’ stories parallel the continued revitalization efforts in Reading.
The six dancers include Theresa Gonzalez, Liyanah Mann, Ashanique Monlyn, Stephanie Seda, Caliph Shabazz and Jaymes Williams. They have parlayed their experience to make a positive impact on the City. Some currently work or volunteer for RIZE, a youth arts nonprofit organization, where they teach free hip hop dance to children at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. They also perform professionally under the group name “We Are Reading” at special events.
Penn State Berks students enrolled in an independent study course taught by Dr. Laurie Grobman, Professor of English and Women’s Studies, and Dr. Cheryl Nicholas, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences, interviewed the dancers and wrote their stories. Students Imane Guisse ’19, Meghan Antosy ’18, Symone Corbin ’18, Rachel Hayes ’18, and Chelsea Watts ’18 wrestled with ethical and perspectival considerations when writing about people whose lives differ from their own and the potential intervention in the City’s cultural and historical identity through these collaboratively produced and performed narratives.
In addition, Penn State Berks alumna Regina May Goins ’13 of Willow Street Pictures donated her work as the book’s main photographer.
Meanwhile Albright design students enrolled in the college’s Digital Design course worked under the supervision of Dr. Heidi Mau, Assistant Professor of Communications, to tell the dancers’ story through powerful design and supporting photography.
“This is Reading,” a performance art installation combining dance, film and theatre, was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage as an attempt “to capture the voice of a city that is grappling with how to reclaim a narrative that has been fractured along racial and economic lines, with renewed energy and spirit to carry it to a level of greater prosperity and hope.”
“We are Reading: Dancing in the City” aims to build on the work of “This is Reading” by delving into the lives of these six Reading residents and their perspectives on their city. The project uses the dancers’ stories as a vehicle to gain understanding of life in Reading, along with its challenges and triumphs. The stories about these young dancers offer a way to engage with the City and look to possibilities for its future.
This project was supported by Penn State Berks through the Mrs. Harold M. Grout and Mrs. C. Glenn Kauffman Endowment for the Arts and the Penn State Berks Center for Academic Community Engagement (CACE).