Sharing Stories Through Dance At REC's Voices Gala

By AJ Trager

DETROIT - On Sept. 12, the Ruth Ellis Center (REC) will present its Voices 2014 gala to celebrate 15 years of services to LGBT runaways and homeless youth. Mark Erwin, the director of community development at REC, said the center began because of a single act of violence towards someone who was gay. Community members came together following the act, and REC has since become a place for young people experiencing violence and homelessness to be welcomed and treated as family.

"In a political climate that is not always accepting of LGBT identities, it is important to recognize that REC exists here in Michigan. It's also important that REC is known outside of Michigan and is recognized nationally for LGBT advocacy and outreach," Erwin said.

The evening will not present like a typical fundraising event. The youth who utilize the center will have their talents showcased. There will be an awards ceremony for community members who have given to the success of REC, youth impact awards, a silent auction, a strolling dinner, a market place, an address by Bill Green, an address from Executive Director of REC - Jerry Peterson - and presenting sponsor, the LEAR corporation, will talk on why they support REC. The extensive lineup of presentations by REC youth will be the highlight of the evening.

"The biggest thing for me is that this isn't your typical black tie gala. What we really want to do is provide a platform for young people to show their story, resiliency, passion and strength. And this is an opportunity to do so," Erwin said.

Presentations by young people will include dance, spoken word, sign language and music, which were all designed through an intensive psychoeducational process. Dancers will move about the stage with choreography that they composed themselves, giving memorable performances.

"When we talk about music composition, we're talking about emotions like feeling sad, angry, frustrated... and how we express them through the arts. When we are talking about music, we talk about pitches, melodies, tempos in expressing how we feel. We do the same with dance and spoken word. They're used as a platform to talk about our experiences," Erwin said.

Two weeks before the show, dancers were given the music compiled by local producer and live DJ performer, Kevin Reynolds, with inspiration and initial rendition by Paula Marquez, local quartet instrumental music artist. The youth came up with the choreography before adding in the music to the performance.

They were all asked how they would use their voices, from their personal experiences, to design the show. As a result, each motion within the dance means something to the dancer, and the storyline was compiled collaboratively. But not all of the performers can hear the music.

"One of the coolest moments was with one of the young men who is hearing impaired. I was standing with him and asked him to think about how he would like to use his voice. 'What do you mean, use my voice?' he said. 'I don't have a voice,'" Erwin mentioned. He explained to the young man that he was taking the question too literally. After that, the entire process moved forward, and the youth was able to express his voice.

"His face immediately lit up. He had a million ideas," Erwin laughed. "Those are the moments I live for."

For some, dance is their first love and a plie comes naturally. But like any community performance, there is a wide range of ability.

Egypt has been dancing for seven years. He started as a praise dancer and then performed during high school in various different dance forms. He's been involved with REC for three years and was a part of the summer internship that has taught him how to separate things like gender expression, gender identity and the sexuality spectrum.

"There are so many different parts of the LGBT community. You have the good parts, the bad parts, the vogue dance parts, the parts where people do drugs and stuff just like the regular community," Egypt said.

He's tried to go down the right path and has had mentors to guide him. Egypt is a peer educator at Affirmations and enjoys the feeling of family that is provided by the center.

"We don't really have that many places where you can be around people just like you. Because usually, out in the world, you get judged for it [being LGBT]," Egypt said.

With his extensive dance experience, he is helping those on the team that aren't as polished in their movements. As the team captain, he says he has learned patience and that dancers have to want to do it; it can't be forced.

"Dance expresses a feeling. They have to be feeling it in order to express that feeling. Dancing is my life. It's something that I take very serious. I love it, it calms me down, keeps me alive, everything. This whole experience has been fun. But it's a lot," Egypt said. "It's fun and a dedication."

Egypt brought his friend Star to REC, and they were both a part of the internship program. Star has been dancing for two years and is trained in Hip Hop and J-set style.

"It's like, most of the people that need help with the routine have to keep practicing over and over again until they get it right. I'm ready for it [the performance]," Star said.

The dance team practices two hours every time they get together with the help of the Wayne State Dance Department. Dancers chose their own attire for the performance, and Erwin has made sure that there will be a stylist, barber and a make-up artist for the evening of the performance.

"I want them to know they are rock stars," Erwin said. "It is and will always be for the young people. It's an opportunity for young people to tell their story and impact change in a way that we can't."

Voices will be held at 6 p.m. for VIP, 7 p.m. for general admission on Sept. 12 at the College for Creative Studies at 460 W. Baltimore in downtown Detroit. Both VIP and main event tickets are available and can be purchased at http://www.ruthelliscenter.org.
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