It was 2008—the economy was tanking—when professional dancer CJay Philip and her sound engineer husband, Winston Philip, started talking seriously about a move away from New York City. There, the performer, now in her mid-40s, had danced in the original production of “Big” on Broadway—among other high-profile Broadway gigs—while her husband had worked with the likes of Lauryn Hill and the Wu-Tang Clan.
“‘That thing we’ve been mulling, we’ve got to make that move now,’ we said to each other,” Philip explains.
That next key move—to a more affordable city with art and soul—ultimately meant relocation to Baltimore, where the couple had spent the two previous summers working with the African American Heritage Festival.
Today, Philip is the artistic director at Dance and Bmore, a nonprofit situated in the Motor House in Station North that invites diverse local families to embrace fitness and shake their booties together under one roof. Dance and Bmore also brings dance to elderly residents—and others—living in the nearby J. Van Story Branch apartments, through her team’s Forever Fit & Fun improvisational dance program, which is earmarked for participants 55 and over.
“One day the common room’s AC was broken, so we danced in the hallway,” Philip says. “The seniors prefer it in the hallway now, anyway. And it’s completely changed the atmosphere in the building. Some [other non-senior residents] are … doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing, [but they join in]. Dance lightens the space.”
A veteran of nonprofit outreach—she taught dance to kids on a volunteer basis in New York, too—Philip supplements her income by teaching and directing dance for places like Center Stage, but pours a huge amount of her energy into her Dance and Bmore, which was awarded an NEA Our Town grant last year. This year, Philip is a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow— recognized for work that has a significant impact on a community. Her husband works for the Center for Urban Families, supporting ex-offenders and helping fathers improve their parenting skills.
Is it hard to travel back to New York, where Broadway performance was her reality, then return to Baltimore?
“No! We love Baltimore so much!” Philip says. “When I go to New York, I cannot wait to get home. The fact that you can just smile and have a conversation with someone from whatever walk of life … there’s just this down-home feeling about Baltimore. It’s city life, but it’s got this sort of family feel about it. It’s in the way people deal with each other and do business. When I first got here, I was in a New York state of mind. The response was, like, ‘Slow down! How are you? How’s your mama? You got any food? You want to eat?’ Baltimore is about real things.”