he musical intro to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” fills the open Community Engagement Center (CEC). James “Billie” Mickins stands at the front of the room with his back to several dozen people bopping their heads to the beat. The music swells and Mickins pumps his fist in the air.
“5… 6… 7… 8… And kick! Step! Move!” he shouts, and the crowd of all ages follows along in step to the music. The energy in the room is fun and loose just like it is every Tuesday evening when Mickins leads the Spirit Feet Line Dancing class free of charge for neighbors in the West Baltimore community.
“When we come together, I try to encourage folks to step out of their shell,” says Mickins. “I want them to talk about their fitness goals and then I let them know that with them and myself working together, we can help them reach their goal.”
Line dancing is one of several free exercise programs offered weekly at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) CEC to help community members get healthy and fit. On Mondays, community members can de-stress through breathing and meditation under the instruction of Kruti Ravaliya, a certified yoga instructor and a resident of the Union Square neighborhood. Then on Thursdays, they can get back to grooving at Zumba, which is taught by Cherika Jones, a local fitness instructor who has worked at UMB’s School of Medicine for 11 years as an administrative specialist.
From children to senior residents, the classes are always packed with community members and even students and faculty/staff from UMB. They all share the same sentiment that the classes are fun, free, and conveniently located in the middle of Poppleton.
“If you live in the community, you can just walk right here,” says Charlotte McGoines, a Franklin Square resident. “You can learn so much about your body and your health, and we need this. Some people don’t have transportation to go to other places and some people don’t have money for these services, but if you come here it’s free.”
You can learn so much about your body and your health, and we need this. Some people don’t have transportation to go to other places and some people don’t have money for these services, but if you come here it’s free.”CHARLOTTE MCGOINES, FRANKLIN SQUARE RESIDENT
Many neighbors who frequent the CEC exercise classes have seen overall improvement in their physical health. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Griselda Funn, a community health worker from the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown, is there to help support and measure their fitness goals by weighing them and taking their blood pressure.
“They’re coming back with lower blood pressure. Their glucose numbers are coming down,” says Mickins. “Folks have been able to come off of medicine, they’ve lost weight, and they’re coming back happy, and I just love making people happy.”
In addition, what Mickins relishes about teaching line dancing is that he gets to give back to a community that has given him so much.
“I grew up in this community. I raised my three kids in this community, so it’s hard to stay out of it,” says Mickins, whose full-time job is with the Maryland Transit Administration. “This is where my roots are, and even though I’ve moved on, I love coming back!”
Mickins and his wife, Margaret, currently live in Baltimore County, but raised their family in the Hollins Roundhouse neighborhood, located just a few blocks from the CEC. Mickins is excited to draw in even more neighbors to line dancing with the new CEC building.
“When you put a small fish in a small fishbowl, it’s only going to grow to the size of that fishbowl,” he says. “But if you give that fish more space it will grow even more, and this new space will only help the community grow more and more. We’ve already overgrown the current CEC, so we’re excited about this new building and think it can only help the community grow even more.” C