Friday, June 21, 2024

Students at the Deborah Mason School of Dance fear there will be no place for them in Cambridge when development brings the demolition of their current building. (Photos: Jamie Dudley)

Deborah Mason students perform Jan. 16 at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

As strongly as neighbors fear Fawcett Oil being replaced by 70-plus apartments and homes, it’s nothing compared with the emotion resulting from what faces the Deborah Mason School of Dance.

The 37-year-old school, now in a decrepit brick building on Cottage Park Avenue, will be forced out when demolition begins, Deborah Mason told the City Council last month in a plea for any help the city could offer. It’s not clear where it can go.

“We cannot afford to make today’s market rents, and I hate to think we might have to move out of the city,” she cried during the council’s public comment period, amid total stillness from an audience packed with school supporters of all ages. “I never asked for anything from this city … but these kids deserve a home. Something better than what we’re in now, to do the work that we do.”

“Left exclusively to market forces, the arts will be squeezed out,” said David Bass, whose North Cambridge Family Opera is hosted by the school. “We feel powerless and must rely on you, the City Council.”

The councillors might not have known enough about the school to care at first, even with the opera, related Cambridge Youth Dance Program and Groovy Baby Music programs and other dance groups hosted by the school also facing dislocation. But their unanimous vote in support of the school suggested they came to understand David Maher’s policy order asking city officials to “assist … in finding an adequate new space” when speaker after speaker testified to their intense feelings of connection to the school and the role it’s played in changing lives.

Mason wasn’t the only speaker who cried. One girl could barely speak through her sobs.

Passionate supporters

In providing a 37-year home away from home for some 500 students a week ranging in age from 3 to 18, the school and Mason has also produced a multitude of passionate supporters. Speakers ranged from a boy so small he had to be lifted to the microphone to a woman who learned enough skills and confidence at Mason’s school to go on to cheer for three seasons with the Patriots and six seasons with the New York Knicks and dance in performances for artists such as Ricky Martin and Mark Wahlberg.

“I was teased and bullied and cried myself to sleep at night from about the ages of 10 to 14. Something you never forget. It stays with you. Then I met Debbie,” recalled Paula Khelifi, who could afford the school only because Mason made up a work study program for her and is now a Deborah Mason instructor. “I wouldn’t even have been able to show up for the audition if I didn’t have Deborah Mason behind me telling me that I could do anything. Not only did I learn all the skills and technique, but I learned about self-confidence.”

Khelifi wasn’t even the only student-turned-instructor speaking at the council’s Jan. 30 meeting, and hardly the only one, current or former, speaking to Mason’s nurturing or to the time and energy expended getting to the studio — often seven days a week, for several hours a day — because of the family spirit and creative safe haven it provides from bullying or life on the streets. While Mason noted the school’s subsidizing of 2,000 students over the years, parent Kimberly Sanchez-Jackman (who called Mason her daughter’s “second mom”) acknowledged its gift of event tickets that allowed social services clients access to culture they might otherwise never get.

“If you guys don’t help us find a home, you’re letting down a lot of people,” a young dancer named Roxy Rivard told the councillors.

The details — including troubles in an aging building that students say is “literally crumbling” and causes dancers to “slip on the rain that falls through the roof” — were so powerful that when one resident was told he couldn’t speak on an item not on the council’s agenda, he switched tracks from Harvard Square traffic patterns to supporting the policy order seeking a home for the school. “I’m overwhelmed by Deborah Mason, whom I’ve never met before in my life,” Robert Marshall said.

“Miracles do happen”

When it came time for the councillors to comment, they stressed that there was not much they could do, but that they were motivated to do what they could.

“It’s a delicate dance we do … the city can’t just give money to a nonprofit and say here’s money to stay in your space or here’s a space,” Marjorie Decker said. But councillors have access to staff who can see what property is available or is being developed and seek owners interested in giving the school lower-cost space as a public benefit. “We recognize that as the kind of dance school that you are, it would be virtually impossible for you to stay in Cambridge if the only alternative that you have is to pay market-rate rents. Cambridge is too expensive for you.”

Day care centers were facing the same problems, Decker said, and Henrietta Davis pointed to other cultural institutions, such as the Beyond the 4th Wall children’s theater company on Temple Place, at risk of losing homes.

“It’s so clear this is an important community institution that we should keep here in any way we possibly can,” Davis said of the Mason school.

“Miracles do happen in Cambridge,” Ken Reeves told the members of the dance community, pointing to the council’s help in providing a down payment for a dance company-owned building in Central Square as well as to the coming of corporate buildings that could support an arts tenant. “Your coming here gives us an opportunity to think more broadly about who we serve and how we serve. Keep dreaming and we’ll join the dream. We’ve gotten good places before and we can do it again.”