When community members used to gather at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) Community Engagement Center (CEC) on Tuesday nights, they were greeted by the smiling faces of James and Margaret Mickins. Known around the community as Billy and Peaches, the husband-and-wife team founded Spirit Feet Line Dancing and taught free exercise classes once a week at the CEC.
In March 2020, COVID-19 restrictions prohibited all in-person exercise classes but that didn’t stop Billy and Peaches from reaching the West Baltimore community with their fun fitness regimen.
“We saw that the need for this physical activity was still there,” said Peaches. “We knew that this class was very helpful to a lot of people and we wanted them to continue working toward their fitness goals even though they were all staying at home.”
Shortly after the COVID-19 restrictions were put into place, staff members at UMB’s CEC reached out to Billy and Peaches to see if they would continue their weekly classes over Zoom videoconferencing software.
“Exercising is a great stress reliever and a great way to manage your mental health which is something we can’t overlook especially during this uncertain time,” said Tyrone Roper, MSW, the director of the UMB CEC. “That’s why we were really excited to find a way to continue hosting our weekly exercise classes in a virtual setting.”
With the help of their children and grandchildren, Billy and Peaches were able to set up a dance studio in their basement with two web cameras and an audio system. Every Tuesday at 6 p.m. they go live over Zoom to dozens of participants ready to dance. The first five minutes of each class are dedicated to greeting everyone and catching up. Then, Peaches operates the music while Billy takes care of the dance moves.
“We love it!” said Billy. “Now that we’ve gotten comfortable with this format, it feels just like a regular classroom.”
“One of the things that I enjoy doing is greeting everyone when they come to the class,” added Peaches. “We feel like we're really connecting with the community and our friends, and we're just glad that we were able to pull it off.”
The line dancing classes have become so popular that West Baltimore neighbors have started inviting friends and family from out of state to come and dance. Participants from New Jersey, Illinois, and more have been consistently logging in every week to join in the fun.
“Our motto is making a connection and that's what we want to do,” said Billy. “Sometimes, folks just want to make a connection to something or someone positive. If we connect with someone and take them out of a moment of sadness even for just an hour, then we have done our job.”
Line dancing isn’t the only exercise class that the UMB CEC has moved to a virtual platform. On Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m., community members can also participate in virtual Zumba classes with Cherika Jones over Facebook and Instagram live. Jones is a local fitness instructor and has been teaching Zumba at the CEC for several years. She has worked at the University of Maryland School of Medicine for 12 years as an administrative specialist. Participants can feel her contagious energy and passion for fitness through the screen.
“I hope that with every class I am able to inspire hope and happiness for each person whether it’s through a smile, a dance move, or something I say,” said Jones. “I just want everyone to let go in the moment and have fun together.”
As city and state officials start to slowly roll back restrictions from COVID-19, CEC staff members are working on next steps for its fitness classes. Roper says he is preparing for both virtual and in-person classes at the new CEC building, which is scheduled to open at the end of the summer.
“We want to make sure that we can really support the programming and still meet the needs of the community under whatever circumstance we may be under at the end of the summer and into the fall,” said Roper.
Meanwhile, Billy and Peaches hope to continue their virtual line dancing classes and organize an outdoor and socially distant line dancing class in the future.
“We support the Community Engagement Center in everything that they’re doing because we are a part of this community and we just want to continue to keep that connection,” said Peaches.
For more information on the CEC’s weekly exercise classes, visit UMB’s Office of Community Engagement website.