At the end of her second encore of the night, after playing for five hours, an exhausted Meschiya Lake motioned for everyone to kneel as she drew out her final chorus. She then joined them on the ground, genuflecting to them as much as they were to her, and drew out a final breathless coda that brought everyone back to their feet, arms outstretched, and thanking her for helping them open this new house of a different kind of worship.
It’s hard not to make the religious parallels. The new Mobtown Ball is in what was formerly known as St. Paul the Apostle Episcopal Church and before that as Henshaw Memorial Church for almost 100 years. After the last congregation left a few years ago, the building was home to gutter punks who staged shows in the abandoned spaces. The neighborhood itself is known unglamorously as Pigtown, a name it got when there were slaughterhouses in the area to service the nearby rail road station now museum. The latest chapter of this eclectic history started on September 24, 2011, and centers on a bunch of Lindy Hoppers.
“All this hard luck in this town has found me
Nobody knows but the troubles are all around me”
Many people like to compare getting into Lindy Hop to joining a cult. The Baltimore Lindy Hop scene would not help to dispel that perception. I had my very first dance in the ballroom when a woman, who I had never seen before, asked me almost a half an hour before the dance even began. Karen was that eager to break in the new dance floor she helped to build. She was one of the dozens of volunteers that had feverishly worked on completing the ballroom for the opening that night.
According to the Mobtown Boss, Michael Seguin, “The dance floor is composed of 5 different layers. Contains over 10,000 nails or screws and, to my knowledge, uses a design that hasn't been used for probably 50 years.” All assembled by an all volunteer army. When Andrew Thigpen, Stephen Grimes, and I walked in earlier that day, they were still working.
There was still a strong smell from the last coat of polyurethane put on the floor a couple days previous. The contractors just finished the bathrooms the day before. We spent about an hour clearing some of the bigger stuff off of the stage area which is what Stephen doing in the background of this video.
I guess maybe not all of it was work, but that's how Baltimore makes you want to roll.
After that we went off to grab some dinner and then change at Nina Gilkenson's place. I barely recognized it from the last time I was there a month ago when it was bursting with supplies for the new space. Brand new chairs and tables packed the living room, covered in a voluminous drape that Nina was sewing together by hand. Michael says its maroon. According to Nina it’s actually a cabernet color.
We got back to the ballroom around 7:30 pm. Just in time for Andrew Thigpen to be the very first paying customer of the Mobtown Ballroom.
The chairs and tables are now spread around the main room to encourage the social part of social dance. For nights with smaller crowds, they plan on using the furniture to shape the dance area to be as big or as small as needed. The drapes cover the sanctuary, the area where the altar used to be, and will now serve as the stage where musicians and other performers will testify in their own ways. Sometime in the recent past someone thought it was a good idea to install fluorescent lights which give the church a more institutional feel. Some rummaging through a flea market by Nina unearthed a half dozen “ball and chain” lights that can be dimmed and help make the space a bit more intimate.
Before the dance started, we went over to the pre-game at the Calypso Cafe which is a bar a couple of blocks down the street. That bar is pretty new itself. It's a bit nicer than the neighborhood which I guess is a sign of how it's turning around. We definitely got eyeballed by the locals quite a bit. Since its by M&T Stadium and Camden Yards, they get their fair share of visitors, but I don't think they've seen anything like a bunch of lindy hoppers all fancied up for a big event. It's especially hard not to notice with Andrew Thigpen doing his Saturday Night Fever strut down the street in his purple zoot suit.
I ducked out of the bar early to go back to the ballroom. There was a good 50 or so people for the beginner lesson taught by Ranya Ghuma and Dilsad Hikmet. Nina’s mother, Laurie, was behind the bar helping to sell drinks alongside a dedicated group of close friends and volunteers. The bar itself was hand built from random items found around the church. It’s backed by a 950 pound refrigerator bought on ebay, picked up from the wilds of Pennsylvania.
During the lesson, Michael grabbed me and asked, “Do you want to see our ritual?”
Earlier in the day, I joked about blessing the building by breaking a bottle of champagne on it. Even after when Michael asked us to buy the cheapest bottle we could find, I didn't think he'd actually do it. Maybe pour it over himself or more likely Thigpen. Sure enough, my bottle of champagne was in Nina's hands as she said some nice things about the founders of Charm City Swing, Sommer Gentry & Dorry Segev. Next thing you know, it was flying towards the wall.
After the lesson ended, Hikmet played "Blues My Naughty Sweetie" by Sidney Bechet while the band got on stage, and I danced my first dance in the ballroom with Karen. They all did a great job with the floor. Almost too good since it was super slick at the beginning. I almost bit it a few times in that one dance.
After that song, Nina took to the stage to welcome everyone and introduce Meschiya Lake for the first official dance at the Mobtown Ballroom.
Even though Nina kept Dorry at arms length, he took it very well. He would have plenty of opportunities to talk later, but at least that moment was classy.
It got crowded right quick. There were dancers from as far north as New York City and as far south as Virginia Beach. And of course Thigpen who flew in from Minneapolis. They sold out before 10 pm. They had a small line of people outside for awhile, but everyone got in eventually. There were also good number of people from the community who just came in to check out the place and get a first hand view of their new neighbors and their friends.
Nina did a belly dance performance during the second band break. My video doesn't do it justice since it has trouble focusing in the dark which is why it gets fuzzy at random times. Nina may have something to do with that too.
Somewhere during the second set someone triggered a jam, and it was pretty hot. The musicians and the dancers were into it. The song was "Reefer Man" which has a great call and response element to it, but I think everyone was cheering too loud to notice.
The rest of the night was a blur of great music, fun dancing, and only in Baltimore moments. At the end of one of the sets, the sound system went a little crazy, sounding like a beat box with all the static, so Meschiya started rapping some of the most obscene lyrics I have ever heard come out of a woman's mouth.
The late night antics showcased more vintage Baltimore “weirdness.” There was Ian Blumenfeld reprising his spoken work act from Lindy 500. Sommer, Dorry, and Thigpen did a rap hip hop version of the old jazz song "Take it easy greasy" with Thigpen laying down the beats, Dorry rapping, and Sommer singing the chorus into a machine that auto-tuned her voice.
Seguin DJ'd the last few songs of the evening by paying homage to Baltimore's irregular musical tastes: A little Cee Lo Green (uncensored) and then a little Lonely Island. It was quite a sight to see one of the rising stars of traditional jazz music joined one of the best vernacular jazz dancers in the world in a mosh pit of Lindy Hoppers from up and down the East Coast screaming out the lyrics to The Misfits and Journey. Somewhere in there, the cops showed up just to say “hey.” It seemed like all of Baltimore was in a welcoming mood that night.
I want to say that Baltimore has a classy side, but that wouldn’t be quite the word I’m looking for. It’s probably more like working class. And it’s a contagious sort of vibe that inspires people to work as hard as they play. Baltimore took several moments throughout the night to thank all the people who made the Mobtown Ballroom possible. Not because of vanity, but because there were so many people who make that scene what it is.
Dorry likes to joke about defiling their new home with their presence, but Mobtown Ballroom has more in common with a church than they care to admit. A place like that doesn't happen unless there's a solid foundation and an enthusiastic and dedicated community to build on it. Talking to some of the people who helped build the floor was pretty intense since they have a bit of religious fervor to them. It’s a dedication that doesn’t come from having a hobby. It comes from being a part of something.
Meschiya Lake’s encores embodied this sort of hard work as party attitude. The first encore was actually a waltz. Even if people didn’t know how to waltz, they made it work.
Then The Little Big Horns ripped into "When I get Low." It’s one of Meschiya’s signature showcases, but everyone was on their last legs after playing through five hours. During the instrumental solos, somehow Meschiya mustered the energy to ask Andrew Thigpen to dance. She was soon joined by a line of leaders including Seguin, Dorry, and Nina. She got too carried away and wasn't quite ready when it was her turn to take back the mic. She rallied as much as she could, and dug deep to give back Baltimore the energy they were showing her all night. She could have easily ended it there and left the crowd satisfied, but something urged her to give them more.
She may or may not have been cognizant of the symbolism in motioning everyone to kneel for that last chorus. After such a raucous show, that flock was more than happy to obey. But rather than lord over them like a musical high priestess, she got down there with them as if she knew that by virtue of blessing them with her voice and her sweat, they were now claiming her as one of their own. She did Baltimore proud by giving them all she had, and then a little bit more.
And that was just the first night.
Coincidentally, the name Baltimore comes from the Irish phrase Baile an Tí Mhóir, meaning "Town of the Big House." The Mobtown Ballroom isn't just a dance hall, it's a home. Hopefully you can come visit soon.