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Latest Dance Exchange project zeroes in on LGBTQ+ community

Andy Torres, pictured in the foreground, is a collaborator in the Dance Exchange project “Growing Our Own Gardens.”  COURTESY PHOTOAndy Torres, pictured in the foreground, is a collaborator in the Dance Exchange project “Growing Our Own Gardens.” COURTESY PHOTODance involves not only movement and music but community involvement.

That’s the viewpoint of Dance Exchange, a Takoma Park-based, non-profit arts organization devoted to dance-making and creative practices that engage individuals and communities of all ages to cultivate a deeper understanding of one’s world.

“Dance Exchange collaborates across generations, disciplines, and communities to channel the power for performance as a means for dialogue, a source of critical reflection, and a creative engine for thought and action,” said Matthew Cumbie, associate artistic director.

One of the communities Dance Exchange is now exploring is the D.C. area’s queer community.

With the collective title of “Growing Our Own Gardens,” the organization has created an ongoing project that promotes “dialogue and action about issues faced by LGBTQ+ communities and centers the stories, lives, and questions of LGBTQ+ throughout history,” Cumbie said. “We’re looking at the history of these communities but bringing the conversation into the modern day.”

Integral parts of the project are the stories of individual community members.

“We don’t have space for artifacts of history, so we’ve collected oral histories and a database people can access as well as social geography maps,” he said. “Though it may look to the outside world that queer communities are uniform, they are diverse in shape, size, and purpose. They grow from the places and people that hold them.”

The project culminates in a two-night premiere performance at Dance Place, also called “Growing Our Own Gardens.”

The performances will be intergenerational, including cast members from the age of 25 to those in their 70s and 80s.

Dance Exchange planned “Gardens” through partnership with other local organizations and artists. These include the Human Rights Commission of Rockville, which will hold workshops related to the theme.

A creative team of artist-collaborators both within Takoma Park and D.C. has been working on the project for the past two years.

“Some of these identify as dancers, while others fill roles as speakers, poets, and scholars,” said Cumbie. “It’s a healthy mix. A poet, for example, has helped shape the conversations with queer community members as well as the arc of the text.”

To continue the impact of “Growing Our Own Gardens” beyond the premiere performance, Dance Exchange is seeking ways to “seed iterations of this work in other communities and compelling queer histories,” Cumbie said.

Darryl Pilate, better known as Jazzmin St. James D’Monaco, is a member of the “Gardens” creative team who found inspiration in an improvisational performance in New York City two years ago.

D’Monaco’s story is a little different even within the LGBTQ+ community, first for being a drag performer, and, later, going from a person who does drag to a drag queen – a transition he made over the past six years.

“One of the questions that comes up in the queer community is how I knew I was a drag queen,” said D’Monaco.

However, D’Monaco said that a more-pervasive question was, “How do we in the queer community accept ourselves in our own community? That is a separate question from how we are looked at from the outside.”

Those participating in the dance performance will try to draw movement from the collected stories they hear, he added. But the stories will be told in a mixture of song, dance, and the spoken word.

Dance Exchange cautioned that the performance has mature themes and profanity.

Another issue the nonprofit will explore in the future is migration, as the population in its home base of Takoma Park becomes more diverse.

“Growing Our Own Gardens” takes place Feb. 24 and 25, 8 p.m., at the Dance Place, 3225 8th Street, NE, in Washington, D.C. For information about the Dance Place, call 202-269-1600. For information about Dance Exchange, call 301-270-7600 or visit: www.danceexchange.org.

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