Many years have passed since I started CityStep at Harvard. Today, the program is THRIVING beyond my wildest expectations. The scores of Harvard students who lead this project each year embody the best of community engagement: They are thoughtful, spirited, action-oriented and highly collaborative. They ask the right questions. They work incredibly hard. They are mind-bogglingly well-organized. They are emotionally committed beyond measure. They also embody a high level of artistic expression; the creativity that they bring to the movement, costumes, lighting and music of the final performance continues to amaze.
This is a special time for CityStep: A new graduate board, an alumni association, a new sister program at UPenn in Philadelphia—and a recent 25th anniversary! It’s a great time to get involved in whatever way you can. Let the infectious spirit of this extraordinary collaboration envelope you and jump in!
CityStep began over twenty years ago when Sabrina Peck ’84 took a troupe of fellow Harvard students into the Graham and Parks elementary school to perform excerpts of “CityStep,” an original, evening-length dance theater work Peck had created on campus. The production, about the interweaving lives of 10 characters in a city told entirely through dance, had been a popular sensation on campus, performed at Sanders Theater and the ART, and brought together a diverse group of actors, dancers, composers and musicians. At the Graham and Parks school assembly, Peck watched the riveted, energized faces of the children in the audience and had the idea to bring kids up onstage so they could experience for themselves the power of dance to express emotion and ideas. She led the young participants in dance theater exercises which culminated in a short dance about conflict, performed at the end of the assembly to the delight of teachers and peers.
The structure of the CityStep program flowed naturally from that first charmed interaction. Four teams of Harvard students, led by Peck, traveled to four Cambridge public schools twice a week for a year to teach dance theater classes during the students’ school day. At the end of the year, over 100 kids and Harvard students performed in Sanders Theater an original dance theater production about growing up in the city – to the delight of family, friends, and the Harvard and Cambridge communities. The Cambridge mayor was in attendance on opening night and an official “CityStep Day” in Cambridge was declared! The next year scores of CitySteppers also performed at Harvard’s 350th anniversary stadium spectacular. After two years, Peck passed the leadership of the program on to three students, Diane Paulus, Rebecca Shannon and Celia Savitz, who worked with Peck to transition the program into an institution that could continue to thrive.
In 2004 CityStep formed at Penn. The idea of expanding the organization to another university in another city had been discussed at program’s inception in 1983. In the spring of 2004, Laura Weidman ’04, a four-year veteran of the program, received two Harvard public service fellowships to set up CityStep at the University of Pennsylvania upon graduation. With the support of the CityStep leadership and a number of alumni, including Sabrina Peck, Weidman teamed up with two Penn undergraduates, Alicia Marini ’06 and Martha Mijes ’06, to establish CityStep as a student organization serving the West Philadelphia community. Marini and Mijes had laid a strong foundation for CityStep’s arrival through their own work on an afterschool dance program called CityLights during the Fall of 2003. The spring of 2005 marked Penn’s first annual CityStep show, Paint the Town: CityStep presents Philadelphia Murals Brought to Life, featuring the work of almost twenty undergraduates and around 50 middle school students. The program practically doubled in size in its second year and continues to grow and thrive today.