Longtime dance and voice adjunct instructor and community performing artist Gayle E. Martin is receiving a lifetime achievement award for more than four decades of service to Washtenaw Community College students and her own personal tale of courage and resilience.
A legally blind, Black albino woman, Martin grew up wanting to be the Hollywood version of a “triple threat” – a singer, dancer and actor. She has passed on each of those passions to hundreds of WCC students and the Washtenaw County community for more than four decades.
Fittingly, the award will be presented to Martin during an “Honoring Black Women: Reflections of Wisdom Through Poetry and Song” event at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 24 in Towsley Auditorium, inside WCC’s Morris Lawrence Building. The event, part of WCC’s Word Arts & Education Forum series, is free and open to the public.
The award is sponsored by the non-profit World Center for Creative Education, in partnership with the Amplify Project and the WCC Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
The March 24 program will feature a discussion with celebrated Harlem author, artist and activist Karen Taborn moderated by WCC Sociology instructor Harriette Moore-Kovac and Cherisa Allen, founder and president of Women and Men Working For Change and a social worker at Ypsilanti Community High School. Ypsilanti-based musician Kenyatta Rashon, a former WCC student, is among the performers.
In further tribute to Martin, an award for artistic courage has been established in her name and will be presented to six deserving WCC students at the conclusion of the Honoring Black Women event.
Through her involvement in the local performing arts scene as a child and teenager, Martin became a mentee of Dr. Morris Lawrence, a beloved and inspiring performing arts faculty member and jazz orchestra instructor at WCC.
Along with performing locally and regionally with the college’s ensembles and programs, Martin became an employee of the college in June 1979 and Lawrence enticed her to become an instructor shortly after she completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theater at the University of Michigan in 1987.
Though she admits her life goals never included teaching at that point, Martin said “if Doc said it was part of who you are, you listened and did it.”
Martin taught alongside Lawrence until his unexpected death in 1994. She also worked with Noonie Anderson, a dance instructor at WCC for more than 40 years, and played a large role in developing the college’s Musical Theater program alongside the late Ron Fracker, assisting with performance, choreography, directing and lighting/set design.
Martin’s journey into the arts started with childhood ballet lessons. She has shared the tale of participating in a talent competition for young Black women, where sponsors doubted her ethnicity because of her albinism. When her Black father arrived, the organization offered to recount her scores and change their decision. Martin says her father replied: “You saw only what you wanted to see. May this be a lesson for you.”
As fate would have it, Dr. Morris Lawrence, founder of the WCC performing arts program, was one of those judges and her journey with WCC began.
Soon afterwards, long-time local dancer, choreographer and teacher Vera Embree watched Martin dance at a different performance. She was soon recruited to the University of Michigan dance department, at the age of 13, to join the gifted student program.
Martin similarly piqued the right people’s interest at a choir competition and was invited to sing for Dr. Willis Patterson, then the Dean of Music at the University of Michigan, who became her vocal teacher and another long-time mentor. From the age of 13 until her early 20s, Martin participated in the U-M Musical Theater program while simultaneously performing with the WCC Jazz Orchestra and the Afro-Musicology Society.
As a WCC instructor, Martin supported many former students' dance companies and performances as a mentor, choreographer and sponsor. On many occasions, she took students in when they had no other place to go; becoming a mother, sister or friend to those in need. Just as her own journey required the embracing of numerous challenges, the challenges others faced were never too much for her to embrace.
Whether teaching dance, theater or voice – aided by her dynamic and talented friend and accompanist, Brian Buckner – Martin patterned her form of instruction after the deep, caring and compassionate style of her mentors Dr. Lawrence and Dr. Patterson.
Martin also continued to perform with the Ann Arbor Civic Theater, Blackbird Theatre, Jack and Jill Cotillion, Performance Network, Encore Musical Theater Company, Obsidian Theatre, and Wine Women and Song, among others. However, a busy life in academics and performance never took priority over her commitment to her community nor her role as a single mother to daughters Bihanna and Erys.
Martin dismissed the possibility when asked if she had ever felt like giving up or doing something more stable as a profession.
“I was raised in a family that promoted a creative atmosphere, so I’ve always felt it was my role to promote this creativity with others as well,” she said. “Of course, it has not been easy being a single mom of color, having albinism, being legally blind, but I have never slowed down. Not for a second have I allowed myself or others to be undermined by those who cannot see me for who I am.”
Tags: Dance, Music, Performing Arts, Voice