Brian Gerardo’s mother began teaching her son Filipino folk dances at age 5. By the time he got to college at Virginia Tech, Gerardo had graduated to hip-hop dancing and was asked to teach workshops and judge dance contests. But after college, dancing remained in the background of his life.
Until one day, while teaching social studies to a class of sixth-graders at the REACH! Partnership School in East Baltimore, Gerardo realized he was struggling to connect with his students. In the middle of a particularly challenging classroom lesson, in an inspired move, he blurted out, “If you guys can just get through this lesson, I will teach you a hip-hop dance move!”
“Well, that turned the whole day around,” says Gerardo, 29.
When a fellow teacher said she also used hip-hop dance moves to connect with and strengthen relationships with her students, Gerardo said he knew the two of them were on to something.
From there, the seed for The Baltimore Dance Crews Project (BDCP) was planted. Gerardo and that fellow teacher began formally introducing Baltimore City Public School students to popping, locking, breaking and boogaloo using workshops, afterschool dance clubs and audition-based teams that meet on Saturdays for practices.
“When colleagues saw student participants improve their attendance, grades and behavior, they asked for sessions at their schools,” Gerardo says.
The effort was a success, but it was primarily adult-led until a BDCP dancer from Digital Harbor High School announced he had dreams of starting and leading a hip-hop dance club at his school. Not long after, Gerardo visited Digital Harbor and discovered the student not only was teaching sophisticated choreography but was working with administrators on logistical issues and setting up carpools to help other students get to rehearsals.
“He was exhibiting real leadership skills that we didn’t even know were there,” Gerardo says. “We said to ourselves, ‘Why can’t other students do this?’”
With support from the OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship Program, other students will.
Through his fellowship, Gerardo will launch a Young Teaching Artist Institute for high school dancers who are interested in leading workshops or starting hip-hop dance clubs in schools throughout the city.
He hopes the project will increase accessibility to afterschool programs, improve the city’s youth employment rate and encourage better attendance and improved graduation rates.
According to the Afterschool Alliance, Maryland ranks in the bottom 10 states when it comes to access to afterschool programs, Gerardo says.
“We just don’t have enough leaders or people who are capable, who have the time to create and run the programs. At the same time, our students are eager to show their leadership skills,” he says. “So instead of them getting an afterschool job that’s not providing them career advancement, they get to do something they enjoy. They’re creating lesson plans; they’re learning how to set and achieve goals. They are providing a service to other students, but this is also career development.”
Artists who have been performing with BDCP for two years or longer will be paid a stipend to lead workshops or begin clubs in schools, Gerardo says, and will receive personal, career and artistic mentorship.
“Hip-hop is something that my students already connect with; it’s relevant to their everyday lives,” he says. “They were talking about hip-hop artists in class and dancing in the hallways. This is about how do you harness that energy to do something positive?”