A lifetime spent nurturing dance in her hometown

A governor's award recognizes Maria Broom's long devotion to the arts


May 23, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Tibetan incense fills Maria Broom's tidy apartment in Randallstown. A gentle, a rhythmic bossa nova tune plays on her stereo. She wears an earth-tone tunic and brown leggings. Large chunks of amber - set in silver - dangle from her ears and she wears several silver and copper bracelets. Her voice is soft but strong as she welcomes a guest on a recent afternoon.

"I'm a joy-bringer," says the native Baltimorean. "I'm a hostess. I create environments, I can go into any place and make the space more than welcoming. I like to think of myself as a comforter - I can make places comfortable for people. I'm a public speaker, a workshop facilitator. I'm a singer/chanter. I'm a daughter. I'm a sister."

And as of this week, Broom is a Maryland Governor's Arts Award winner, a very pleased one at that.

"I've always felt like one of the village's favorite daughters," she says. "My name seems to carry a good vibration."

The award recognizes Broom's nearly 30-year career in the arts, which has included dance, theater and television. "You do what you do for a long time, and then the city or the state or the governor says, `Girl, we love you,' " Broom say. "It just feels so good."

"She's considered to be the grand dame of dance in the city," says Pamela Holt, the executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, which hands out the biennial award. "She made a decision to commit herself to the arts."

"She's been incredibly important helping the dance community," adds Anne Fulwiler, a panelist on the award committee and a colleague for 10 years. "That is one of her beautiful messages: African dance, ballet, tap, and folk dance all have a wonderful place here in Baltimore. Her great gift has been to connect people."

It almost didn't happen this way.

Broom graduated from Morgan State in 1970, won a Fulbright scholarship and spent a year in Germany studying dance. She spent some time working as a flight attendant for Pan Am, and got into television after being interviewed for a story by a station in Miami. "They'd just lost their African-American female reporter, and they liked the sound of my voice, so they asked me to audition," she said. After a year in Florida, she moved up to Baltimore.

Many still recall Broom's five-year stint as a consumer affairs reporter on WJZ-TV. That was 27 years ago - a time when Broom faced a difficult choice. "At that time I tried to do TV and dance," she says. "But, you cannot burn the candle at both ends, so I let go of the dancing."

Not for long. Even as offers began rolling in from bigger markets, Broom was rethinking her priorities, and her decision. In the end, she gave up her promising TV news career and opened a dance studio in huge space in Mondawmin Mall. This brought in enough money to fund tuition for dance classes at UCLA. Later she spent a year in Hawaii studying dance on the Big Island. But she always came back to Baltimore.

Broom will turn 55 in August but, sitting with her legs tucked under her on a comfortable sofa, looks at least a decade younger. Her brown skin is smooth with few wrinkles. Her short hair - cropped close to her skull - doesn't have a hint of white. She hasn't eaten meat in 25 years, instructs yoga, says she burns dried cow dung in a small copper plate at sunrise and sunset every day to nourish the air and attributes her looks to "the diet, the dancing and the meditation."

She's believes dance could heal the world, if only we'd let it.

"I think when we're born, and as babies and as children everyone dances. Children naturally dance. I believe your little dancing instincts shut down as you get older." She does do a little shimmy as she speaks - puffing out her chest and shaking her shoulders showing how easy it is.

Broom speaks of African villages that she's visited where dance is used to work out problems between people. "When there is a divorce, the village gathers and makes you dance this stuff out," Broom said.

She understands this dance well, having been twice married - at ages 29 and 39. Neither marriage lasted long. "I didn't have the karma for it," she explains.

When Broom accepted the Governor's Award Wednesday night at the Walters Art Museum, she couldn't resist the opportunity to perform. After a brief thank you at the podium, she took off her shoes, tied a colorful cloth around her head and invited her drummer to join her on the stage. To the beat of the African drum, she told her favorite story: A mother who teaches her son five secret dances. It gets the audience on its feet and dancing.

"Now you know why we love the arts," gushed Lt. Gov. Michael Steele to the audience after she performed. "It is expressive and you get into it."

Broom will keep dancing, even as success in other areas has come her way. She has taken acting roles on HBO's The Wire and The Corner, and in NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street. She teaches in the theater department of the Baltimore School for the Arts and performs for high schools around the state.

"My life is filled with all the different things that I want to do and can do," she said. "All of my paying jobs are things that have to do with dancing and acting and storytelling. I mean, what a blessing."

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