Gayle Martin: 35 years later, she’s still going strong

WCC dance instructor uses the arts to break down barriers

Gayle Martin began teaching dance at 15, and 35 years later, she’s still going full-force

News Editor

The beat of a hip-hop track pulsates through the hardwood floor. Arms and legs move methodically under the bright lights, mimicked by reflections on the mirrored walls. In the dance studio in Washtenaw Community College’s Morris Lawrence building, dancers’ emotions emanate from their bodies.

Leading the class is WCC’s resident triple-threat: Gayle Martin, who has taught dance at the college for 35 years – since she was 15.Martin

Fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, her personality projects through the roof. Her ebullient laugh reverberates through the room. Her beaming grin is magnetic. Her aura is warm and welcoming.

“I’m an Ann Arbor-ite,” Martin said, born to hardworking, upper-middle class, social parents. Among numerous accomplishments, her mother, Shirley D. Martin, was a founding administrator of the WCC nursing program.

Christmas, church on Sundays, visiting family in St. Louis, years as a student at St. Paul Lutheran elementary school – Martin’s traditional upbringing makes up her fondest memories.

Friday nights with a phonograph were a ritual in the Martin home.

“Every Friday night (my parents) would be home,” Martin said. “They would put on the record player and they would dance (and sing).”

“It’s always been around me,” she said. “There was always creating, always music, always dancing.” At the age of three Martin knew she would be a performer.

“I got the bug,” she said. She began with studying Cecchetti ballet. She performed in studios and on stages, but in a time when a prima ballerina was relegated to a certain mold, she faced challenges.

“Back in those days if you had too much bosom or too much behind, they didn’t consider that you were going to be able to become a prima ballerina,” Martin said. “Well look at the top-three prima ballerinas now.” At the age of 15, she was asked to take classes at the University of Michigan. Through that experience, she had a revelation.

“That’s when I realized there’s African-American dance, there’s Congolese dance, there’s tap, there’s modern; I don’t have to be a prima ballerina,” Martin said. “So at 15 I said, ‘This is a done deal, I can do this.’” There was no turning back. Her parent’s opinions were mixed.

“My dad always said, ‘Do what you love, money will come later,’” Martin recalled. “My mother? No. She was more practical,” she laughed.

Martin was drawn to the arts because it provided her “soulful enjoyment,” she said, and she never had any interest in sitting behind a desk.

“Singing is a wonderful way to let go of everything. Acting, you can be on stage and you can be anybody you want to for 30 to 45 minutes. You can be different people,” Martin said. “You can dance a different way. You can let the music move you in a different manner, and each time is different.”

Another motivating factor in her pursuit of the arts was not seeing anyone like herself while growing up. As an African-American albino, Martin has endured discrimination and misunderstanding. How she has handled adversity has shaped who she is today, she said.Martin

“Being an albino, there’s a very fine line, as far as I’m concerned, that you walk because you’re not really accepted,” Martin said.

Although she has often dealt with ignorant, negative portrayals of albinos in the media and has even been mistaken as Caucasian, she takes it all in stride.

“You can go through life being very angry, because every day there’s always something stupid said to you, or you can find humor in everything that happens,” Martin said. “I choose to find the humor in it.”

At 14 years old, Martin was seen in a talent contest by renowned WCC musician, Morris Lawrence, for whom the Morris Lawrence building is named.

“He asked my father if I could come dance with the WCC Jazz Orchestra,” Martin said. Her father agreed. By 15 years old, Martin began substitute teaching at WCC, and by 17, she was teaching a class of her own.

“I didn’t say how old I was in class.” She chuckled. “I don’t know how Morris did it, but he did.” After graduating high school, she officially enrolled at WCC in preparation to transfer to the University of Michigan.

The grounds were barer than they are now. Apple trees paved the path to temporary buildings that housed the arts department. Where there were fields, parking lots now sit. And it was a time of great diversity, Martin said.

“Not only in the color-wise, but age-wise,” she said. “There were people coming back to school; people taking classes because they wanted to hone up on what they already knew.”

Students could take a class more than twice, allowing them to perfect their crafts. WCC music instructor and musician John E. Lawrence learned under Morris Lawrence’s guidance alongside Martin. The two still perform together.

“He not only is a guitarist, he’s an artist,” Martin said. “He mastered his guitar not over a two-semester or a year thing. It was years.” Studying at the University of Michigan, Martin met and befriended her long-time colleague, WCC dance instructor, Noonie Anderson. Martin was an undergrad, Anderson, a graduate student.

“It’s funny, because we were in school together, and we came to Washtenaw and ended up working together, and it’s been the dynamic duo ever since we’ve been there,” Anderson said.

She was awestruck when she first witnessed Martin perform.

“She performed in a musical that Morris Lawrence had written and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that young woman is incredible,’” Anderson said. Martin remains as passionate as she ever was, Anderson said.

“Teenage Gayle was equally as energetic and effervescent and creative as she is now,” she said. “She still has that same sort of contagious energy.”

There has never been competition between the two artists, and their relationship has extended beyond the boundaries of WCC, Anderson said.

“Our families are very close. Not only are we family within the WCC connection, but we’re family outside,” Anderson said. “I kiddingly say, it’s probably one of the best relationships I’ve had outside my marriage.”

As Martin dances alongside her students during her class, she weaves her way through the room. Her manner is encouraging. “Can’t” and “won’t” are words she doesn’t accept.

“Just because you’re new to whatever form it is, I push you,” Martin said. “I don’t accept, ‘I can’t,’ because you’ve never tried it, so how do you know?”

WCC culinary and hospitality management major, Ashley Bedwell, 25, of Superior Township, is in her second semester of Martin’s hip-hop dance class.

“Her choreography is amazing and it will kick your butt,” Bedwell laughed. “Her choreography challenges us to do things we didn’t know our bodies could do.” Martin jokes that she’s also a counselor to her students.

“I treat them like they’re my kids,” Martin said. “I don’t care if you’re 80, you’re still my kid.” She feels that dance is like therapy, and her students concur.

“Gayle can take you on your worst day, and turn it around and make you completely happy that day,” said nursing major, Sheena Riley, 28, of Romulus. “Just seeing her face, she’s just positive energy at all times.”

“She truly listens, and she truly cares,” Anderson said.

MARTINLaughter echoes throughout the dance studio. The humor Martin has used to sail through rough waters in life is the same humor she carries into her classes.

“She makes us laugh all the time, which makes the class more fun,” said WTMC student, Maya Koziol, 16, of Ann Arbor. “It’s more laid back; it doesn’t feel like it’s serious.”

In 2012, Martin started the Rare Paragon Gem dance company. She doesn’t believe dance is limited to a certain body type, age or dance background, and trains students to become the dancers they’ve always wanted to be.

“A lot of people have told me they couldn’t because of how they looked, or where they were in life or whatever,” Martin said. “I don’t believe it.” Martin has never shied away from a challenge, and has taught students with Downs Syndrome, some who spoke different languages, and three students who were deaf.

“I’m waiting for someone to come in there, who is brave enough, who is blind,” Martin said. “I can’t wait. I want it to happen because it’s possible.”

“It’s amazing that she can have total beginners and advanced students all in one class and still be able to challenge every single person,” Riley said. “She makes it a safe, comfortable place for everybody.”

When Martin isn’t working, she continues dancing. Volunteering her time at the Children’s Creative Center in Ann Arbor, she teaches dance to preschoolers, and teaches praise dancing at two churches.

Once she tucks away her dancing shoes, she wants to be remembered by her students as someone that inspired them to give to others, to share with others, to be the best person they can be and to be totally honest and truthful about who they are.

“You should not be ashamed of anything that has happened, because it made up who you are today,” Martin said. “Never give up. Things may not always work out the way you planned it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to work.”

“Washtenaw is really lucky to have her,” Bedwell said. “She’s the coolest lady I have ever met; I really believe that.”

“I have the utmost respect for her and I truly know how lucky I have been to have her as a colleague for all these years,” Anderson said.

Although she has been teaching since she was 15, Martin does not foresee retirement anywhere in the near future.

“I truly believe that my last breath will be either singing in a microphone or on a dance floor,” Martin said. “As long as I can move, I’ll be doing it.”


SEE VIDEO: Gayle Martin’s hip-hop class

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Dancers prep for shows at Towsley Auditorium

Dancers prep for shows at Towsley Auditorium


Staff Writer

Gavin Pydyn, 22, a business communications major from Ann Arbor, performs a solo dance during rehearsals.


Gavin Pydyn, 22, a business communications major from Ann Arbor, performs a solo dance during rehearsals.

Megan Holt points to the surgical scar on her leg, a result of someone in a Jeep Cherokee driving over her last year. And she talks about her unusual — and entertaining — rehab routine. Seven months after the accident, Holt is practicing her stage routine. “I dance with a hula hoop containing flashing lights,” said Holt, 27, a dance and pre-nursing student from Brighton. “WCC’s dance program helps with my physical rehabilitation. It’s great stress relief. I learn discipline and time management for my rehabilitation exercises.” Holt and other students prepare for their last two performances of the semester at WCC’s Towsley Auditorium. And the word is getting out about some very special acts. “You better get your butt in a seat, especially to catch Kevin Sano’s show opener,” said Jasmine Young, 21, of Ann Arbor. “I’m opening with a Michael Jackson-esque routine,” said Sano, 21, an Ann Arbor resident studying graphic design who admits he’s a little nervous. “I’ll wear a microphone to vocalize a beat while dancing.” Students perform under the tutelage of WCC dance instructor Noonie Anderson, who is adamant about preparing them for the highly competitive dance profession. “My students learn what it takes to produce their own show and succeed,” she said. “These last two performances represent two years worth of student development.” Jasmine Young appreciates Anderson’s approach. “Her Advanced Choreography class opened my eyes and taught me how to succeed in this business,” said Young. Young will perform to an instrumental piece titled, “Breathe Me,” with fellow student Jazmine Slater, 21, studying photography and dance. Gavin Pydyn, 22, from Ypsilanti, is at WCC for dance classes and a business degree. “I’m practicing my hip-hop and modern dance performance for the show,” said Pydyn. “After I graduate, I hope to start a dance company using my business degree.” PatchWerk dance company founder Willie Baker, 27, of Ypsilanti, will have 17 students join him for a performance. Baker is a WCC graduate, but still takes dance classes. “I incorporate pop, R&B and rap for this performance, so get ready,” Baker said. WCC dance students present “Choreographer’s Showcase” on April 13 and “Spring Swing” on April 20 at WCC’s Towsley Auditorium. Both shows start at 7 p.m. So don’t let a reckless driver in a Jeep keep you from attending these final two shows. Megan Holt didn’t.
Students in advanced performance, DAN 200, practice for two upcoming shows in April.


Students in advanced performance, DAN 200, practice for two upcoming shows in April.

Dance instructor Noonie Anderson admonishes student Gavin Pydyn, 22, of Ann Arbor to 'focus!'


Dance instructor Noonie Anderson admonishes student Gavin Pydyn, 22, of Ann Arbor to ‘focus!’

Bridging cultures through ‘Element of Illusion’

Bridging cultures through ‘Element of Illusion’



Indian dancers perform a dance as part of ‘Samasti — The Elements of Illusion’  at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Friday, Nov. 12.


Indian dancers perform a dance as part of ‘Samasti — The Elements of Illusion’ at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Friday, Nov. 12.

Ashwin Korde is an Indian American, and up until four years ago he didn’t know what that really meant for him. He was not forced to actively participate in his religion; he did not hang out with other Indian children. Korde felt more like an average American, without much of an identity. Then he was accepted into the University of Michigan, and he joined the Indian American Student Association. Now Korde is the vice-president of group, and he speaks of passion and of service, and can expound on one of the most important lessons he’s learned here in Ann Arbor: to love, honor, and to respect his culture. Oh, and he can dance. Sort of. On Nov. 12, IASA members like Korde showed their unity as Indian Americans through the organization’s annual cultural show, Samasti: The Element of Illusion. Samasti, which translates to the word “element,” was a dazzling display of color, sound, and heritage. And the performance, produced and choreographed by UM IASA students, presented a dance showcase that exhibited the myriad traditions of their homeland. All the proceeds from the event went to One World Health Organization, which gives medical aid and resources to children in developing nations. Styles like Bhangra, Raas, Classical, Gypsy, South-Indian, and Bollywood were all performed with passion and dedication. “Samasti is about culture, and diversity, and happiness,” Monica Patel said with a proud smile. She is a senior at UM, and the president of IASA. Indian culture is a virtual gumbo of different religions and ethnic groups, said Patel. Samasti was a way to show off those elements, and to promote deep connection among their members in the Ann Arbor community. “Just like here in America, each region and group has different stereotypes,” explained Patel. “One region likes to drink and party a lot, one region is really cheap, and so on. “We are trying to break down some of those stereotypes.”
Dancers from the troupe ‘Sharara Sharara’ perform in Gypsy style.


Dancers from the troupe ‘Sharara Sharara’ perform in Gypsy style.

IASA, which was founded nearly 27 years ago, focuses on three established principles, or pillars: culture, community-service and political awareness. “We feel that if we come together and say, ‘Oh, well this is where I’m from and we do this type of dance and celebrate this festival like this,’ we’ll have a greater understanding of who we all are,” said Patel. Throughout the show, video segments detailed the historic innovations India has given to our modern world, such as the first documented university. The segments also hailed influential Indians from around the world, like CNN’s resident doctor, Sanjay Gupta, a UM alum and former president of IASA. The performance itself was much more than a blatant display of ethnocentricity said the 22-year-old Korde. For him, the show is just another great aspect of IASA. When he started as a freshman, Korde said that he had few friends who were of the same background, and saw IASA as a way to change that “It’s really all about the energy and emotions that went into to building these new friendships,” he said. “You can see it in all of our faces while we do this show.” Although culture is their core pillar, Korde states that building common bonds with students of all cultures is at the heart of IASA’s mission. “This show is really a springboard for people to get involved in our organization,” said Korde. “We have all types of races, outside our own, who are a part of IASA. The show is the first thing we all get to do together.” Most of the dancers had no formal training and learned each step as the show was created. This, however, was not the case for Patel, one of the few classically trained dancers in the group. “My parents took me to the temple a lot when I was a child, and they taught the classes there,” she said. “I started doing it when I was six, and it’s just something that has been a part of my life ever since.” Korde, on the other hand, was of the majority of those just looking for something fun to do. “If I do something embarrassing on stage, it’s no big deal,” Korde said with a laugh. “We have no dance experience and we make it look as professional as possible. People really seem to enjoy it, and so do we.”

WCC’s got talent: students line up to show their stuff, good or bad

WCC’s got talent: students line up to show their stuff, good or bad

Julianne Mattera

Staff Writer

Performer at the Washtenaw Community College talent show


Ten minutes before the close of Washtenaw Community College’s annual talent show auditions, students and staff were dancing and frolicking on Towsley Auditorium’s stage working off energy and riding on a high of a slew of generally impressive auditions. For the previous few hours, Towsley’s stage was home to anyone who wanted to perform. Audience members watched as hip hop and b-boy dancers popped, locked and sashayed all over the stage; a cappella singers hit notes that gave onlookers the chills; and others performed prose and poetry readings. “The acts this year seem more prepared than last year,” said Rachel Barsch, Student Activities events coordinator. “I’m glad to see students putting in a lot of effort this year.” About 27 acts tried out for the talent show, but Barsch said only 20 or so will make the cut for the 2½-hour talent show on Nov. 11. From auditions to their fifteen minutes of fame on Towsley’s stage, students have a month to whip their routines into shape. But there’s more to these students’ talent than meets the eye.
Creepy tribute
Kevin Leistner, 32, walked up to the stage in a rumpled, tan suit without a note card or a microphone when he auditioned. It was story time for Leistner and his audience, and no props were necessary to make his tale stand out. Leistner recited Alvin Schwartz’s “The Hearse Song,” eyes glowing and hands gesturing to amplify worms crawling in and out and visions of eyes turning into dust. Even at the auditions, his grave storytelling entrapped the audience in the spooky, morbid prose. Leistner has been working with school and community theatres for more than 20 years, and he wanted to share Schwartz’s morbid tales to an audience who, he feels, is no longer in touch with the author’s work. “Most people, now-a-days, don’t know who he is,” Leistner said. “And he just has such wonderful graphically gruesome pieces. I just love his work.” And Leistner admits he has always had a “sick taste in media.” “I love horror movies and Edgar Allen Poe, just the macabre and creepy,” he said. “There’s just something about it – it’s so disturbing you have to like it.”
Baton twirling at the Washtenaw Community College talent show


A whirl of a twirl
Dressed in a pink and black polka-dot getup and twirling a baton in one hand, Kayla Dillon, 18, later admitted she was basically twirling blind onstage to her act’s upbeat big-band music. But a pasted-on smile never left her face. Even with lights glaring her vision, Dillon gracefully tossed and caught a baton between her legs, and later cart-wheeled with a baton suspended in midair. Yes, she caught that one, too. “I practice three times a week . . . for about 3½ hours, maybe four,” Dillon said. Dillon began baton twirling when she was 12. Her mother saw an ad about baton twirling, and she hoped it would help improve her daughter’s self-esteem and weight problems. “The better I got, the more self-confident I got. It’s like a work out, so I started to lose weight . . . about 45 pounds,” Dillon said. “It boosted my self-esteem. It was the one thing in high school that kept me going.” Now she teaches twirling classes to 12-year-old girls. “Not only do I teach them how to twirl and the techniques, but I teach them how to build their self-confidence as a team,” Dillon said. “So they’re learning team-building skills, how to be kind, how to be nice, good sportsmanship. It’s really nice to see when they’re changing and being better people.”
Hip hop dancer at the Washtenaw Community College talent show


Hip hop in memoriam
Willie Baker, 25, grew up in a community where guys didn’t know how to dance. At home, he had been dancing his whole life. “I kind of hid it,” Baker said. “But when I finally got the courage to be in a talent show, and I was in the show, a lot of people were like ‘you’re a really good dancer. I didn’t know you could dance.’ And that motivated me to start showing more people my talent.” His older sister, Chrissy Satterfield, was good at dancing. She was murdered when Baker was 13. From then on, dancing had a whole new meaning. “She taught me to dance hip hop, and I always watched her growing up,” Baker said. “So it’s kind of a personal tribute to her every time I do perform. But it’s like dancing kind of went down the line in the family, and it was her favorite hobby to do. And it became mine, too.” Dancing soon became part of his daily life. He formed dance groups in high school that performed across the Midwest. And, after he moved away from home, Baker always managed to get a dance group together. Even when he’s walking through WCC’s campus on to his next class, Baker said he’s dancing in his head, visualizing new dance routines. Baker moved to Washtenaw County last year, and at the encouragement of a high school buddy, he and a few friends formed the dance group, PatchWerk. “We all just kind of joined together,” Baker said. “That’s why we called it PatchWerk because we were all just thrown together like patches.” PatchWerk won first place at the talent show last year for its routine that combined ballet and hip hop. “I would tell people that if they have a talent, they should use it to the best of their ability and not let it go to waste. . . .,” Baker said. “If it’s where their heart is at, they should follow their heart.”