Hip-hop music blares from two large speakers at Mayo Street Arts on Portland’s Munjoy Hill.

Eleven-year-old Lena Wakati – wearing jeans, bright blue sneakers and a T-shirt with the word “chill” emblazoned across the front – is dancing her heart out.

“Like every single time I hear a beat I just want to dance,” she says, laughing, “and I can’t stop myself.”

At Club Hip Hop, she doesn’t have to.

Every Friday from 3 to 4 p.m., Mayo Street Arts founder Blainor McGough hangs a colorful banner outside of the small former church, which houses the nonprofit theater and community center, announcing that Club Hip Hop – a one-hour, drop-in dance class – is underway.

McGough created Club Hip Hop four years ago at the suggestion of a neighborhood mother. “She said, ‘These kids love to dance, and they love hip-hop. Can you start a class?'”


There’s no charge to the kids in East Bayside. Instructors from Portland Youth Dance volunteer their time, and Mayo Street Arts provides the space and the encouragement.

“It’s something positive for them to do after school,” McGough says. “It’s physical fitness, it’s music, it’s being with their peers and with positive mentors.”

Some weeks, only a handful show up. Other weeks, more than a dozen kids will strut their stuff across the hardwood floor.

Many of them live in public housing in nearby Kennedy Park and are the primary English speakers in their homes.

“They come here on their own,” McGough says, “and find a way to get here on time and come not only to the class but to performance opportunities throughout the year. They take ownership of Club Hip Hop. They feel like this is their thing.”

Veeva Banga, 14, one of the club regulars, was born in Sudan. Her family moved to Maine when she was 4 years old.


Tall and slender, Banga is a natural dancer, gracefully executing the fast and sometimes complicated “popping” moves that characterize hip-hop.

“I like watching other people,” Veeva says. “If I see somebody do something, a move that I like a lot, I’m just like, oh, I’m going to go home, and I’m going to practice, and I’m going to do it just the way they do it.”

Most of the instructors from Portland Youth Dance are in their teens, just a few years older than some of the kids in Club Hip Hop.

“They’re mentors, not just instructors,” McGough says. “They set a good example. They have expectations for them to be respectful, to come on time.”

Kristina Glanville, 19, has been teaching here for two years. Like many of the other instructors, she has taken the time to get to know the kids and their families.

“It’s why I keep coming back,” Glanville says, “because it’s just a heartwarming thing to see them.”


And some of them, she says, show a lot of promise.

“It’s just amazing. Some of the kids are dancing at Casco Bay Movers (a Portland dance studio) right now through scholarships because they’ve developed such a strong love of dance.”

Nine-year-old Yousra Zakaria is one of the youngest in the class, but she doesn’t seem to have much trouble keeping up.

“I can practice moves at home, dance in the mirror,” Yousra says. “I really like to dance.”

So does 11-year-old Margaret Ojut, who walks into the class as it’s about to begin, shrugging off her parka and dropping her backpack on the floor. Margaret tells her friends that she didn’t have a very good day in school, but Club Hip Hop will take care of that.

“When you come here,” Margaret says, “you start dancing, you forget what happened.”

While the instructors teach specific routines, hip-hop is all about self-expression. So at the end of each class the kids get the chance to dance free-style.

Standing in a circle they move to the center one at a time, lost in the music. It’s the best part of the day, says Margaret.

“Dancing just makes me so excited, makes me happy,” she says. “It takes me to another world.”

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