Swing Sanctuary: Mobtown Ballroom

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In the middle of Washington Boulevard in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood, there stands a beautiful 19th century stone church. Look through its stained-glass windows on a Sunday morning and you won’t be met by a congregation; you’ll see no pews, hear no organs. But on a Monday or Friday night, it’s near impossible to miss the sounds of buzzing brass instruments or the vibrations made by dancers’ feet moving in time on a bouncy sprung floor designed as a shock absorber.

For the last twelve years, the Mobtown Ballroom has drawn in regulars from the city to swing dance under the dome of its high ceilings, including the two authors of this article. At the time, one of us was a college student looking to break away from campus; the other was finding her place after moving to Baltimore from another country. We found Mobtown through its social dances. It was not only an outlet for creativity, but for meeting like-minded people (and each other).

Mobtown makes it clear to newcomers and regulars alike: this is a welcoming place where dancing is a conversation with your partner and the people around you. There is a give and take that makes the ballroom a safe, fun place to learn. After speaking to owners Sarah Sullivan and Michael Seguin, we found that their venue etiquette and business ethics are not so different.

Mobtown Ballroom’s inception was an unforeseen twist in the lives of Sullivan and Seguin. While both discovered their love for dance as teenagers in San Diego and Seattle, respectively, neither envisioned it as their eventual vocation. With Seguin’s extensive education in classical literature and writing and Sullivan equipped with a degree in Peace Studies from Goucher College, they initially gravitated towards different career paths.

Sullivan was facing the frustrating reality of navigating bureaucratic systems within nonprofits and Seguin was transitioning from Seattle to Baltimore immediately after graduation. Compelled by a lack of job prospects post-grad school, their situations led them to yearn for a space where they could autonomously shape their vision, free from external influences, ultimately birthing the concept of the ballroom.

When asked about what called them to invest their creative energy here in Baltimore, Sullivan shared that the city offers a distinctive backdrop for community- building. As she points out, it embodies the vibrancy of a metropolis while retaining an intimate, close-knit atmosphere. Unlike the sprawling expanse of New York, where aspirations might languish on the periphery, Baltimore encourages a bold, “just go for it” ethos.

The city’s gritty resolve, forged in a history of neglect, means that once initiatives are set in motion, there will be an audience for it. As Sullivan puts it, “There’s the size of it and then the scrappiness of the people and the fact that the city has been left behind in many ways. But that means that when people here do stuff, there are people who are hungry to participate in it.”

Before the ballroom, Sullivan and Seguin hosted scattered dance nights throughout the city. Eventually, they realized that by pooling resources with others in the community, like Charm City Swing, they could afford a lease on one location. The church was ideal—open space and no pillars. They put in sprung floors and made the space into what they wanted, but the rest wasn’t as easy.

The location made acquiring a liquor license difficult due to its proximity to other still-practicing churches, and opening a business in a residential area always has its issues. Overcoming these challenges shows where Mobtown shines at collaboration, not just between dancers but as an institution working with the city it resides in.

“We spent almost three years talking to community members, attending the churches, talking to the congre- gations a couple of times to get all of the approvals we needed to have the full-scale business that we have now,” Seguin states. “We had to sit down with the neighbor- hood and say, ‘What is it that you want? What are you worried about? We’re going to bring 250 people through here regularly. How do we make sure that that doesn’t mess with your lives?’ And it worked out.”

Working with the city and nearby churches, Mobtown eventually acquired their liquor license, but this was not the only partnership involved in establishing their bar. Lane Harlan, owner of local gems W.C. Harlan, Clavel, and Fadensonnen, sat down with Mobtown and walked them through how to operate a bar. “Getting to be part of the small business world and [watching] the collabo- ration that happens has been magical,” Sullivan reflects. “[Seeing] how giving of themselves and their resources small business owners in this city are.”

Mobtown is not solely on the receiving end of those resources, either. Seguin and Sullivan have built strong relationships with other arts groups in the city who utilize their venue, such as Kelly Jo Chartier, who runs In the Dark Circus Arts, and Brad Kolodner, who hosts regular square dances in the space.

Sullivan and Seguin also credit the work their team puts in to make the ballroom what it is. Seguin made a point to mention Charlie Wieprecht, a dance instructor and key player present at every dance night (as well as Sulli- van’s husband); and their bar manager Dave Cavalier. Sullivan acknowledges Sarah Brandt as “a godsend in terms of all the things she does.” Seguin adds that she’s “really important, like social glue.” Brandt runs swing dance practice sessions outside the ballroom, fostering
an encouraging community for newcomers.

At the end of September, Mobtown closed its doors at the institution they’ve built over the last twelve years. However, that doesn’t mean Sullivan and Seguin are retiring. With plans to move to a new location, they hope to expand the ballroom beyond its current capacity. Elaborating, Sullivan says, “What we’re hoping to do is continue with events and classes, but also have a second space open six or seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.”

With this expansion, Mobtown’s goal is to continue working in tandem with the broader Baltimore commu- nity, not just the swing dancers it has come to know and love. Sullivan points out the need for public spaces at a time when everything is becoming privatized, monetized, and only open during peak hours.

“People need places to hang out and be human,” Sullivan states. “I want to see if we can cultivate that sort of community-oriented, welcoming vibe that encourages people to actually interact with each other instead of just stare at screens or consume something, but outside of the swing dance world. I don’t know how possible that is, but I’m really excited to try it.”

Sullivan told us that, to her, the opposite of collaboration is usually exerting power over people. This stance bleeds into every aspect of the ballroom. It is evident in the way they take time to work with the community they’re based in, in the trust they have with other organizations and small businesses, and even how every social dance begins with a decree that someone can say yes or no to a dance, no matter the reason, without worrying about upsetting someone else.

Both Michael Seguin and Sarah Sullivan gave beautiful speeches on the ballroom’s last night at their original space on Washington Boulevard addressing the move, cherishing the community, and reminding everyone that Mobtown’s existence is not constrained to a specific building.

“This place is impossible to explain,” Seguin said. “When it is closed tomorrow, I hope people will say, ‘Well, you kind of had to be there.’ Whenever this place flourished, it flourished because all of you made the ballroom a sanctuary. That is a sacred act, a holy act. The ballroom is something you created together week after week, some- thing you sustained and which will continue to exist long after this poor building has been eaten by rats. Mobtown is made of people.”

For Sullivan, “You [the community] made a space that is increasingly rare in this world; one where people can walk in off the street and shake off their job, their hard day, their problems, and for a few hours, just be a human being. In this church, we’ve managed to have moments where we can feel that each of us is holy… It’s unlikely we will walk into another place that feels so holy at the start, but if we keep it up, we will make it holy ourselves.”

Mobtown is about more than just connecting with a dance partner, it’s about connecting with the city you live in and the people around you. We both look forward to connecting with whatever space they move to next. Wherever they go, they will have a community to support them.

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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