The Dream Nation Marching Unit Does It For The Kids
It's a Tuesday night at a recreation center in Reservoir Hill, and the Dream Nation Marching Unit is practicing for a parade that Saturday, one of three practices it holds this week. In one room, dozens of dancers, mostly teenage girls, run through their steps with a drum major, while two of the women who helped found the band, co-director Ericka Wilson (who everyone calls Becky) and secretary Shante Moore, both 34, keep an eye on the proceedings through a window from the next room. At one point a couple of girls get into a spat and a moment of roughhousing ensues. Moore quickly smooths things over, telling the apparent victim, "She's sorry, she didn't mean it," though it's unclear whether the perpetrator is apologetic herself.
Though they practice twice a week at the rec center, which is part of John Eager Howard Elementary School, and once a week on the Dunbar High School football field, Dream Nation are not affiliated with either school, or any school at all, in fact. They refer to themselves as a "community band," part of a long tradition of self-sufficient marching bands in the African-American community that operate on a volunteer basis and raise their own funding independently. And Dream Nation Marching Unit, which was formed last October, is Baltimore's newest community band.
Though Wilson and her children live near the rec center, she says the band members aren't centered in any one part of Baltimore, and take the bus or catch rides to practice from all over the city. "We got people from Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, all over," Wilson says. The younger members of the band, most of them in middle or high school, all choose to put their free time into Dream Nation, at an age when summer vacation gives them all the time in the world to get into less constructive pursuits.
"There's so many kids out here just going astray," Wilson says. "But I can keep 50 kids off the street for three to four hours, four days a week. Sometimes we have three parades a day, so we might be together from 8 o'clock in the morning to 11 o'clock at night."
Eschewing a full band with brass and woodwinds, Dream Nation's roughly 70 members bring together the bare essentials: 20 drummers, mostly boys, and 50 dancers, mostly girls. The youngest member of the band is 5, and the oldest who marches with the band is co-director Walik Hernandez, 29, while several parents serve other roles in the organization. Wilson says there are a few parents who are hands-on with the band and help out at parades. "And we have a few that just think it's a day care, but that's fine," she laughs.
Hernandez, coming in late from his job across town as a hairstylist, slumps down at a table while Wilson reviews video footage on a laptop of a recent battle of the bands, where Dream Nation was a runner-up. "I know if I can bring second place home and I'm just starting out, I know I can bring first home," Hernandez says with pride.
Most of the elder members of Dream Nation are veterans of several marching bands, including the Baltimore All Stars, from which they splintered off last year. "It was a situation that came about," Walik obliquely offers about the split. "We as a family had our differences. So to alleviate the problem or to alleviate our differences, I chose to do my own thing, so I branched off." He and the other ex-All Stars got together and came up with Dream Nation's name and the distinctively loud color scheme, turquoise and hot pink, that adorns its banner and uniforms.
On this particular Tuesday, the band's percussion equipment isn't available for practice; the man who usually helps the band by transporting the drums in his truck recently suffered a heart attack. Still, the percussionists, who play snares, bass drums, tom quads, and cymbals, are all there, hanging out in the lobby while the girls go through their routines with drum major Rhonda Carr. "I may bring a part to a step, and somebody else may bring a part to a step, we all work together," says Carr, 27, a tall, statuesque veteran of several local marching bands.
"They all love her, so they all pile up in her house and, you know, work on their hair," Wilson says of Carr. "Of all of the bands I've seen, I can say honestly, Dream Nation has the most dancing and executed-out steps, as opposed to just jumping and singing." The percussion section's routines, which the drummers all arrange and collaborate on themselves, are largely instrumental, although there is one rhythm they play to which the girls sing the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams."
Dream Nation has performed several times in Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore, and the band is looking forward to its first out-of-state performance, having been invited to an African-American heritage festival in New York in September. "We're trying to fundraise the money as much as we can, so we don't have to charge the kids as much," Hernandez says. "Gas prices getting higher. We be struggling, but it's OK."
Although Dream Nation receives payment for some parade appearances, Hernandez will happily bring his band to events that don't pay, such as the city-sponsored Baltimore Believe Tour, although not without complaint. "We been believing too much," he wisecracks. "They don't want to give us no cash, they want you just to believe in them."
Coming up on the end of summer and the end of the parade season, Dream Nation will meet less often in the winter. But Hernandez anticipates celebrating the band's first anniversary in October, and hopefully many more, with the full knowledge that without an exterior organization providing support or funding, many community bands dissolve after just a few years. "I take it one day at a time, but my expectation is for the group to be here until I close my eyes," he says. "We try to teach them that marching is basically a form of discipline before anything else. It's good to dance and get your life and have fun, but there's definitely times when it's time to listen, to pay attention."
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