Dan Yonah Ben-Dror Marshall launches Cambridge Community Center for the Arts

By James Doyle, Computer Engineering and Art History student at Northeastern University

Dan Yonah Ben-Dror Marshall got his start in life in Israel. Born to two parents who worked in publishing, education, and civil rights advocacy and research, Dan and his siblings were raised with the discussion of social justice and politics practiced as a virtue. From an early start, Dan was drawn to music and dance, and gripped by the multiculturalism and spirit behind the art forms, even falling into the Jerusalem Jazz dance scene at the early age of 14.

When his family relocated to Boston, so that his father could continue his research on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement, he continued his dance practice throughout his time at Brookline High School, and later during his studies as a mechanical engineering major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Five Colleges. Through dance, Dan learned a lot more about the United States and the communities here. “Dance was a really big connector,” one through which Dan could attempt to interpret what was at the heart of the music, and through which he found himself friends amongst a number of diverse cultural groups.

Upon graduating from UMass and returning to Boston, Dan found himself growing roots as a teacher in the Latin dance scene. Visiting dance clubs nightly while working full-time as an engineer, helping run a kung fu school, and running a Latin and Jazz dance company, Dan loved the “empowering, exploratory” atmosphere of the dance scene. Eventually Dan would return to school to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Northeastern University, though he would come to find that the market for his engineering degree wasn’t as large as he’d hoped. It was following this insight that he ultimately left the program, and decided to start a community center specifically geared towards the arts on a diverse, multicultural, and multigenerational scale. Quickly thereafter, Dan found a group of artists, community investors, and a building to house the programs, and at the start of 2003 the Brookline Community Center for the Arts was formed.

Throughout its existence, the Brookline Community Center for the Arts worked to be “a home for the arts,” to “cultivate and strengthen” the feeling that artists and the community brought to the table. Within the space Dan had created, members of the community would be allowed to engage with the arts in any manner they wanted, without the pressure to perform or compete, and with the focus instead, on the experience of events and the exchange of teaching. Subsequently, Dan also wanted to create a space where the artists that taught classes would be able to work gainfully and sustainably, allowing them to experiment and innovate while also paying the bills. Classes were affordable, with the requirement that at least one student in need could enroll free of charge. At the same time, the scale and nature of the community center would allow artists to make a gainful living.

At their peak, as Dan proudly shares, the Brookline Community Center for the Arts had a faculty of about 350 at their Coolidge Corner location, hosting around 170 classes a week and 500 events a year. After a tumultuous real estate battle to purchase their building in 2005, the group lost their Brookline location, and has been on the move since.

Currently, the Brookline Community Center for the Arts, now the umbrella of the Cambridge Community Center for the Arts, exists as a pop-up from late-February through April 2020 in the heart of “Canal District Kendall,” with prospects of a longer-term extension. One of their largest current ventures is continuing development of their online education tools, along with their institution, artist, educator, and student management software and technology. They recently jump-started their virtual online education feature, which has been in planning since 2001, and which, in the current social crisis, has become even more crucial. Through this platform, students may already take most of their classes remotely online, both live and after-the-fact. The center is further expanding its faculty body to facilitate online teaching for artists who have temporarily been displaced due to pandemic-related facility closures.

Ultimately, “everything’s transient, just like life,” but the goal for Dan has been, and will continue to be, supporting artists and supporting the community’s ability to engage in a way that is enriching and sustainable for both ends. Though, when talking to Dan, one is immediately struck by how much he knows and how much he has done, he seems to want purely to hear from and support the community members around him, and to dance along the way.

Cambridge Local First