Black History Month Spotlight: Maria Broom – Actress, Storyteller, Teacher and Dancer
Maria Broom talks about her career in Baltimore, starting as a reporter at WJZ-TV, as a teacher at Baltimore School for the Arts, a storyteller and a world-renowned dancer and theater and television actress. Broom talks about the state of the arts community in Baltimore
EDDIE CONWAY: I’m Eddie Conway, host of Rattling the Bars for The Real News Network.
This month, we’re doing a segment to honor Black History Month. This week, we have with us Maria Broom, who’s a dancer, a storyteller, an actress, and a teacher. We’ll firstly discuss her career.
Maria, thanks for joining me.
MARIA BROOM: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. I’m curious about the arts. You’ve been in the arts since you were six years old, you’ve been in the city for a long time. What’s the situation with the arts? The school system don’t seem to be financing it. It doesn’t seem to be flourishing in the city. What’s your take on it? What’s happening and what should happen to make it better?
MARIA BROOM: Starting with the schools, because you’re bringing the children up, you’re growing a generation up through the schools, some of the arts are slipping back into the schools now, but for a minute, they took all of the arts away. I think of it in terms of like a cart with four wheels; education that included the academics, included physical education, and included the arts, which was music, which was dance, which was singing and choir and glee club. They had all that stuff, they had extracurricular activities. And you had it in school too, children learned to draw. And then, for some reason, a decision was made to take the arts out of the schools, which left the cart lopsided, trying to move forward on just three wheels. And when you do that, you stop feeding the whole child, you stop feeding the whole person that you are teaching, because the arts addresses a part of your being that isn’t addressed by just academics.
We see, and there have been studies now about why the arts should be back in the schools, because you’re seeing how when you focus children and students and young people on the arts, on things that they like, they’re much more attentive, they’re much more receptive. So we’re finding how much the arts are a useful tool. They really are a useful tool.
Now, as far as the funding of the arts in cities and around the country and whatnot, yeah, there’s been cutbacks for big funding, for big artistic ventures. But since that’s been happening over the years, what I’ve been seeing is this slow influx of so many artistic groups, so many artistic places, so many places where people can go and do their arts, so many new little theaters, theater companies, people writing plays and producing it themselves. Finding a church, finding a building, finding a space, performing it. So much dancing, so much dancing now it’s unbelievable.
The thing though, Eddie, is that it’s not always on the radar. It’s not on the big screen, because the money for promotion, the money for PR is not there. And that’s what takes so much money, a lot of PR, a lot of promotion. That kind of money isn’t there, so the money that is possibly there really goes into the art itself. But then you have people like the Deutsch Foundation, who provide the city with places like the Motor House, like Open Works, and these other places that they’re building. And there are other organizations and people who are providing that. You have Impact Hub, even the Parkway Theater. You’re just seeing a lot more coming back into the city, but in small batches, in small pockets. And it’s fantastic, really.
Like I said, you’re not going to see big PR, you’re not going to see big commercials like you do for Broadway shows or for the Hippodrome or for the Lyric. But it’s there, it’s there. And people are getting it out word of mouth, social media, people are coming, they’re attending. Audiences are maybe ninety at a time as opposed to nine hundred at a time, but it’s happening. And then places like Center Stage and now the Lyric are stretching out more and more to the community. And they are taking arts into the schools and they’re letting the students come and perform in their buildings, they’re letting them study in their buildings. It’s happening, but you have to kind of keep your eye out for it. I guess because I’m in it, I see a lot of it. But it’s not advertised and promoted much right now.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Well, let’s take a step back in history for a minute. Tell me a little bit about your media career here in Baltimore, Miami, and maybe some of the people you might have met.
MARIA BROOM: Well, my life has been like a movie in that being at the right place at the right time gave me an opportunity to say, “OK, I’ll do it.” I’ve always wanted to be a dancer since I was six years old, that’s pretty much all I wanted to do. I wanted to dance and/or act, so to perform, that’s what I wanted to do. So junior high, high school, college, that was my focus and that’s what I did. And I had companies with choreography and we performed and whatnot. But then, when I was at Morgan, I was asked if I was interested in getting a Fulbright scholarship. And a Fulbright scholarship would actually pay you to go study, in another country, the subject of your choice. I applied for India. I wanted to study Indian dance, that whole Eastern vibe appealed to me, had always appealed to me, so I applied for India. I didn’t get India, so they offered me a choice between Romania or Germany. Neither one was anything like Indian dance, but it was an opportunity to go study in another country, so I selected Germany.
So I went to Germany, I studied there for a year in the dance academy in Berlin. So many opportunities came my way because I was there and I just said yes. “Come do this,” OK yes, “come do this,” yes. A chance to perform in Hair, a chance to perform as a dancer in a performance about Patrice Lumumba, they needed an African dancer. So a lot of opportunities. So when that year was over, I was flying back and I was thinking, “OK, what do I want to do next?” And I saw these women on the plane. And they could speak several languages and they were stewardesses. I said, “There you go, apply to be a stewardess. At least you could travel and do things.” I applied to be a stewardess, I got the job with Pan Am. I was working out of Miami, about to fly to Managua, and a cameraman and reporter came up to me and they said, “We’re doing an interview about these X-ray devices. Can we interview you?”
They interviewed me, they liked my voice, they took the piece back to the studio, they wanted me to come in for an audition to be a news reporter. I said, “I really am not into news that way, I really am a dancer, I really am an actor and whatnot.” But they offered me a job, I took it. I said OK. So I wound up being a news reporter for the ABC affiliate in Miami. I did that for about a year, but I said, “You’ve got to get back to dancing, Maria.” I came back to Baltimore, I went to apply for a couple of jobs in dance. They didn’t work out in my favor. I needed a job, so I wound up going to WJZ. And they offered me a job, and the next thing I know they put my face on these billboards, “Viva Maria,” they gave me a position called the Public Defender, where I could help people get things done that weren’t being taken care of. And I did that for about four or five years, but then I had to get back to dancing. I had to get back to what I really wanted to do.
EDDIE CONWAY: What station is that?
MARIA BROOM: WJZ.
EDDIE CONWAY: What’s that, Channel 13?
MARIA BROOM: It was Channel 13. It was an ABC affiliate then, I don’t know what affiliate it is now. But WJZ here in Baltimore. So that was back in the 70s. And then four years after that, in 1977, I just said, “I’ve got to get back to dance.” And I did. I left television and I started a dance studio in the basement of Mondawmin Mall. It was brand new back then. And then I had another studio, and then I had a company called the Dance Bringers of Baltimore, which featured a lot of different women, mostly women, shapes and sizes. And we performed at Artscape and all these things.
EDDIE CONWAY: Can you briefly just talk a little bit about–I’m not going to mention Oprah. I mean, I know you worked with Oprah for some time.
MARIA BROOM: That happened, yeah.
EDDIE CONWAY: But can you talk about the dance therapy that you did in hospitals and prisons?
MARIA BROOM: Yeah. After I did all the dancing and the performing, then I went to study dance at UCLA for a while, I studied dance from different cultures. And then I came back to Baltimore and I really got into what is dance really for? And then I thought about its healing qualities. And so, at that time, they had just started graduate programs in expressive arts, and one of them was dance therapy. So I went to Goucher in the Master’s Program of Dance Therapy. It nourished me to a certain extent, but it didn’t feed me to the extent that I needed it to. So I left the master’s program, but then I was offered a chance to do dance therapy work in these various hospitals and places. And I worked with men who were incarcerated, I worked with children who were too emotionally unbalanced to be in regular schools, I worked with women who were in locked wards, using just dance, just dance to help heal from the inside, which informed what I do now as one of my things other than just teaching, I offer something called Dance Medicine, which is trying to get people to dance from the inside. I bring the music, I bring the prompts and the meditation to get people to dance, and using dance as a healing tool, or survival art, I call it.
EDDIE CONWAY: So you’ve been involved in teaching and you still teach today.
MARIA BROOM: School for the Arts, 24 years, yeah.
EDDIE CONWAY: How do you see art impacting people’s lives? I mean, why do you teach art? And what do you think, how does it benefit the community and society?
MARIA BROOM: It’s a survival. It’s what’s needed for survival. When you look at Indigenous cultures, they didn’t set aside something and call it the arts. Dancing, singing, drawing, writing, chanting, drumming, it was what everybody did every day. When you were little, you got to see it, and when you got older, you could do it. When I got to spend time in a village in Uganda, it’s what you did. Young people did it. They had their youth and their energy, then the elders did it. The little people were always watching and learning as they grow. People beautify things. It’s artistic, they live artistically. We, unfortunately, have taken the arts and made it a separate thing. Then, when it got to the point where you had to pay to learn it, then you had to pay to watch it, and then you had to be talented to even do it, as opposed to it’s what everybody does. You come out of the womb with rhythm. You sing, you dance. And then, when you find out more and more about how to do it, you polish it, you create yourself more and more of it.
It’s what people do and it attends to our spirituality. Our spirituality is very much connected with our artistry. It’s the one place, it’s the venue where you can express your spirituality. And when you take it away, when you put it in museums, when you lock it away on stages and you can only get to it if you have the money to pay for it, you’re denying the village what they really need. Blessings for the museums that are now saying, “Free days. Come look at the art, come be inspired.” Out art places here in Baltimore are remarkable, remarkable. They really are, they’re getting that way. And the artistry… We’ve got Joyce Scott, Joyce Scott from the hood, still lives in the hood, from a mother and ancestry that were always, always artists. And now she’s doing it now, she’s a MacArthur Fellow.
EDDIE CONWAY: Who’s Joyce Scott? I don’t know.
MARIA BROOM: Oh my goodness. Shame on you. Joyce Scott, she’s one of our most beloved and most provocative and activist artists, worldwide traveler. And all of her art has messages. All of her art has messages, whether it’s about racism, whether it’s about sexism, whether it’s about slavery, all of it. And it’s gotten to be such a big, phenomenal gift to so many people. She was recently awarded last year one of the MacArthur Fellows. She’s incredible, and she’s here in Baltimore, lives right there, Penn-North Station area.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. We’re having to end on that note. Thank you for joining me.
MARIA BROOM: My pleasure, my pleasure. Thank you for giving me a chance to talk about this.