The Secret Society Dance Company (Secret Society) has been winning competitions around the city and has even been recognized for its talent outside of New York – winning first place in two categories in the “Battle for the Belt” competition in Philadelphia. (Watch a video of the dance company competing in Philadelphia here.) The team was recently invited by the NYC Department of Youth & Community Development (DYCD) to tour the city for a special Juneteenth show from June 16 to June 19.
Secret Society currently has 20 members, ranging in age from 8 to 21, who are mainly residents from NYCHA’s Astoria, Ravenswood, and Queensbridge Houses. The team’s home base is the HANAC Cornerstone at Astoria Houses, where they meet four times a week.
Secret Society covers social issues and topics in its dances, such as Black Lives Matter, voting rights, and LGBTQ issues. “It’s so special that they get to speak their voices on everyday social issues,” said Rafael Santana, the Cornerstone’s Program Director. “It also really helps to have an agency like HANAC that really gets behind us and wants to see residents blossom.”
Traequan Middleton, a former Astoria Houses resident and managing director of Secret Society, originally formed the dance team years ago because “it kept my friends involved in doing something positive, and it was also a way to share my passion and give back.”
As his friends aged out of the dance troupe, Mr. Middleton had to rethink how Secret Society worked and decided to focus on young people.
In 2014, HANAC, a citywide social service organization, was chosen by DYCD to manage the community center at Astoria Houses. Rafael Santana, a former resident of both Queensbridge and Ravenswood Houses, became the director of the center. He saw the dance team practicing outside in the neighborhood and struck up a partnership with Mr. Middleton. Soon, the dance team began practicing at the community center. Then Mr. Middleton joined HANAC as a dance instructor, and in 2018, he became the center’s assistant program director – two former Queens NYCHA residents responsible for year-round programming for young people, families, seniors, and the entire community.
“There’s not many people from Astoria who can say they work in the neighborhood they grew up in and now provide programming for their neighborhood and get to help kids persevere, show love for their culture, for dance, and do it in a space where they’re protected and can be themselves,” Mr. Santana said.
Mr. Middleton added that “this dance team is good for our community because it gives kids a chance to experience new things in a safe space with positive energy.”
The members of Secret Society echoed the sense of safety they feel being on the team and being part of the Cornerstone. One of the newest members, Jenevi, 16, said, “I feel safe here, like I could be myself.”
One of the youngest members, Blessing, 9, said, “What I like about this team is we all treat each other like family, and I just love my teammates.”
Another member, Kajia, 20, said she loves the team because “it feels like home; they’re more like my sisters and brothers than just my dance members. They make me laugh all the time; I could be sad or in my mood and they always make me laugh and cheer me up.”
First published on 5/31/2022 on NYCHA Journal.