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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dancer Honors Sister Who Inspired Him

Benton Harbor native Willie Baker, 26, had no idea how important dance would be to his life.

He started dancing as a kid as a way to mock his older sister and her friends when they would come to his house to practice their dance routines. His sister was in high school, but had dreams of being a professional dancer one day. Baker watched and learned, and when he copied her he was surprised that not only was he good, but he actually liked it.

“I was always musical,” Baker said. “I played the flute, piccolo, clarinet, and alto sax. But when I started dancing I felt free, like I could finally express who I was. Before I discovered dancing I was quiet, nerdy, but dance broke me out of my shell.”

But soon his world changed and dance took on a whole new meaning.

“When my sister was 17 she was murdered by a jealous wife,” Baker said. “The person who I looked up to, who introduced me to her dreams of dance, was gone. In order to keep my sister with me, I took up her passion and have made her dreams mine.”

Growing up in Benton Harbor with dreams of a better life was difficult for Baker. The culture there for young men is one of anger and violence. There were no educational options for him if he wanted to pursue a career in the performing arts, so in 2008 he moved to Washtenaw County and enrolled at WCC.

“I’d heard about WCC and knew that it was a nationally ranked community college,” Baker said. “Then I met (instructor) Noonie Anderson and she took me under her wing and encouraged me to be the best dancer that I could be.”   

Baker not only completed an associate in liberal arts degree in 2010, he founded a dance troupe, PatchWerk. It currently has 13 members who travel the state and perform, entertain, and compete. PatchWerk has won some competitions, and has always placed in the top three, Baker said. However, it’s a bittersweet experience for him.

“Every time I perform I think about my sister before I take the stage,” Baker said. “Each performance is a personal tribute to her. She instilled the confidence in me to be the best dancer I can be.”

And confidence is what he’ll need. In November he will audition for a spot in the very selective University of Michigan dance program. He feels that the foundation he received at WCC has prepared him to be accepted at U-M.

“Coming to WCC was great,” Baker said. “I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. The dance program helped form me as a dancer and gave me that extra push. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with all the faculty and counselors here at the College.”

Baker remains active in Dance 4 Unity, a student club at WCC. This semester he’s teaching a southern hip-hop class for the club that’s free and open to dancers of all levels. It meets Fridays from 1:00pm to 2:30pm in ML 158.

Baker and his troupe, PatchWerk, have performances across the state in the coming months, with two in the local area:

  • PatchWerk will perform at the Phi Theta Kappa conference at WCC on Friday, Nov. 12.
  • Baker and PatchWerk will perform at the Stars on Stage dance benefit at Towsley Auditorium on Wednesday, Dec. 15.

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