On a recent Friday night, at the Clarendon Park Community Center, a deejay has set up shop in a large room, dimmed the lights, focused a spotlight on the center of the dance floor.
He's pumping hip hop music into the speakers – loudly. A monthly dance battle is about to begin. In the corner, a teenage boy with blond hair and an earring in each ear is drawing what looks like graffiti art on a small poster. He is serious, focused.
His name is Charlie. He is a senior in high school in Uptown and he admits that after being arrested a few years ago for vandalism, something good came out of it - he found Kuumba Lynx.
“A few years ago I had to do some community service hours because I got arrested. It kind of opened some things up for me. That’s how I heard about [Kuumba Lynx],” Charlie says.
Kuumba Lynx is a Chicago-based nonprofit arts and education organization founded in 1996 by three Chicago women, Jacinda Hall-Bullie, Leida Garcia and Jaquanda Villegas.
“It started as a performance group. Then, we offered a free after school program because we noticed that whenever there was any type of community programming, it was sports related. We felt there was a component of arts missing. Plus, in ’96, ’97, CPS (Chicago Public Schools) cut a lot of arts programs. So, it made sense,” says Hall-Bullie.
Kuumba Lynx is supported by several organizations that praise its work.
“We support Kuumba Lynx because the quality of their performance work is really good. They challenge (the students) with great creative energy and imagination,” says Peter Handler, program officer for The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
There are three core areas of Kuumba Lynx: Kuumba Lynx Performance Ensemble (KLPE), which iincludes about 30 youth that travel and perform nationally and internationally; Community Cultural Events, which stages local event, including dance battles and open mic nights; and Arts Residency, two- to 10-week workshops on dance, creative writing, theatre, video, deejaying and graffiti mural making.
The dance battle, which takes place on the third Friday of every month at Clarendon Park Community Center, “brings kids together from all over the city in a peaceful situation,” explains Hall-Bullie.
On this particular night, there are more than 30 young people gathered around the dance floor, talking with each other, practicing their moves and laughing.
In a small room off of the dance hall, the poetry slam team – a group of students who recite rhyming prose with a hip hop influence - practices for an upcoming event at the direction of Hall-Bullie and Villegas.
The women are both slight in stature and - not dressed that differently from the youth they are coaching, in jeans and sweatshirts - might even be mistaken for one of the kids.
“We’ve got a place to go. You can practice whatever you want to practice,” says Charlie, who has taken part in the graffiti art programs and explained that he was correcting a sign that read “Freshest Female Footworker” since the dance battle is open to both sexes.
The dance battle doesn’t begin with an official announcement and it is not entirely clear how the winner will be determined or what they will win, but it doesn’t seem to matter to the kids.
They appear to be entertained by just being there and engaging in the friendly rivalry taking place on the dance floor.
Dmitri Davis, a high school junior from the Clarendon Park area, participated in the dance battle.
“Every time they have one, I like to tell other people around the neighborhood about it. It’s a way to meet new people without violence,” he says. “We like to exchange moves. We like to teach each other to get better."
The organization’s motto is “Creativity linked together with a mighty roar,” which also explains the organization’s name. Kuumba is Swahili for “creativity.” Lynx is for the idea of linking communities together but also has the same spelling as a variety of wild cats known for their versatility and cunning.
When Hall-Bullie, Garcia and Villegas started Kuumba Lynx in 1996, they were all barely in their 20s. Now, the women also serve as role models for college students interning at their nonprofit.
“(The founders) have a really hard job. I really have a lot of respect for the three of them,” says Ashley Wolford, a college sophomore and intern, who focuses on networking and event planning for Kuumba Lynx.
Wolford adds that the diversity of the youth participating speaks to the success of the organization. “(The kids) come all the way to the North side to participate. It’s a big deal,” she says.
It’s through Kuumba Lynx that Charlie got the opportunity to assist in designing the backdrop for the hip hop group Dilated Peoples, scheduled to perform tonight in Chicago.
“That’s gonna be real cool,” Charlie says, before he returns to correcting the poster.