On Sunday, hundreds of people laughing and dancing to music electrified the streets of Cambridge’s Central Square.
They were taking over Massachusetts Avenue for Dance Happens Here, an all-day celebration of movement and connecting with others through dance with sounds provided by Infra Boston. The event marked the momentous feat of the 30-year anniversary of The Dance Complex in Cambridge, a nonprofit that offers dozens of dance classes and unifies the surrounding community.
“Central Square is one of Massachusetts' designated cultural districts. But that designation is only possible because of institutions that provide a place for that culture to thrive,” Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said. “The Dance Complex is such an important piece of that equation.”
Located at 536 Massachusetts Ave, the nonprofit’s building doesn’t look like a dance hub from the outside. The giveaway is the music that people walking by are bound to hear — and feel — as it booms from the building. Built in 1884 by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, it’s long held a spot on the National Registry of Historic Places — an apt distinction for a place that has made dancing part of Cambridge’s history.
Founded in 1991 by Rozann Kraus, The Dance Complex offers a multitude of forms of dance — from Hawaiian hula to hip-hop, West African dance to South African street dance; belly dancing technique to beginner Bollywood. There are close to 100 classes per week and all are welcome, from the experienced professionals to those who are just experimenting. The Dance Complex is also home to faculty and resident artists who teach year round.
Running for 30 years only happened with the ongoing support of the community. “We're a nonprofit organization. So we have a really small staff. And most of our sort of the inner workings are actually run by volunteers,” Sam Rosenburg, The Dance Complex’s community engagement associate, said. “I think the initial draw is dance for people. And after they realize the actual type of community that we have, they stick around.”
The all-day event was also a multicultural experience. Choreographer Isaura Oliveira’s “Power of Skirts” tells the story of Brazil’s enslaved African community in Bahia who used dance as resistance.
When handed skirts by their colonizers, enslaved Africans rebelled, as assistant producer Olivia Hatten tells it. “They flung them [the skirts] around. And they completely transformed the dances, sometimes in mockery of the culture of the people who were oppressing them, sometimes as an invocation of their own beliefs and their own god,” Hatten said.
Cambridge City Counselor Burhan Azeem also appreciated the event for its cultural diversity.
“We talk so much about the diversity of Cambridge and you can kind of see that in the people and, you know, the racial identities that walk along and the languages you hear,” he said. “But today is one of the few days where you get to really see it in all the different dance styles that come out and the music and everyone just gathers together, sharing everyone else's culture.”
He prizes The Dance Complex for the community that it offers. Azeem recalled how a late friend struggled during the pandemic, and her way of finding herself amid a challenging time was through The Dance Complex.
“I think that brought her so much joy and meaning in life, both in dance, but also getting to try everything until she found the one that really was for her,” he said.
The Dance Complex has also taught some more than dance. Elmer Martinez, a dancer and lighting director, credits The Dance Complex with helping launch his career. “When I came here to study art, this community — Central Square, The Dance Complex — took me in and I started doing lighting here and dancing here and meeting everyone. So this is always going to be a special place to come back to no matter where I go.”
The Dance Complex reported an official headcount of 1,500 people at the 5 p.m. mark. But the event went on for another four hours as people continued to connect and share the joy of movement, even through light rain. For Special Projects Manager Kara Fili, “It feels like it’s all worth it.”
“I'm getting a little emotional because to have all of these different people together and in such a celebratory way and here for the same purpose of moving and embracing that what makes us human, which is art, is the reason why The Dance Complex has stayed strong through so many struggles and challenges for 30 years,” Fili said. “It motivates me to keep it going strong.”