When the first wave of families moved into the newly created community of Greenbelt in 1937, it was a transformative experience for many women, Angella Foster said.
Many of the 5,000 families that applied to the federal government to live in the almost 900 recently built homes were trying to make a better life for their families, said the 33-year-old founder and artistic director of Alight Dance Theater. Women in Greenbelt played a major role in making the city work — cooking, cleaning, caring for children and forming clubs and committees.
Foster has taken on a yearlong project to ensure the stories of women in Greenbelt’s early history are celebrated as part of the city’s 75th anniversary. Part of her project, “Hometown Heroes: 75 Years of Extraordinary Greenbelt Women,” is to research the women in the city’s past and put those stories into choreography for a dance installation June 3 and 24 and July 15 and 22at the Greenbelt Museum.
“The way they’ve furnished the museum, it’s like a family is living there, but it’s pristine and lifeless in a way,” Foster said, referring to the historic townhouse-turned-museum, which is furnished to look like it might have looked in the late 1930s and early ’40s. “I want to recapture the sense of energy that you feel when you walk into a space that’s lived in.”
The project is funded by $3,528 in grants from the city, Prince George’s Arts and Humanities Council and the Greenbelt Community Foundation — to go toward material for the project, like costumes and printing of photographs, and to pay dancers, a videographer and composer for original music — as well as donations from individuals.
Four to six Alight dancers will act out the daily lives of women who lived in the planned community; the choreography will be based on Foster’s research at the Greenbelt library, especially photographs, newspapers and diaries.
Greenbelt was part of an experiment in suburban housing by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration during the Great Depression. The community was built by the federal government to provide jobs for construction workers and affordable housing for low-income families working in and around the District, according to the Greenbelt Museum Web site.
Museum director Megan Searing Young said although the lives of the city’s women were well-documented — largely because of the experimental nature of the planned community and the administration’s need to demonstrate its success — their stories have not been emphasized in the past.
“The planners and architects were almost exclusively men, so it’s been a very male-centered history,” Young said.
But, Young said, the spaces the planners and the architects built were most often occupied and run by housewives and mothers, many of whom came from much less appealing housing situations.
“It seems that these women felt empowered by their new homes,” Young said, referring to documents from early Greenbelt. “There’s a sense of energy and optimism in living here that runs through the early years.”
Foster hopes to link that history of energy and optimism to the spirit of the newer parts of Greenbelt such as Springhill Lake and Franklin Park, apartment communities built in the early 1960s.
In another facet of her project, Foster is working with eight fifth-grade girls at Springhill Lake Elementary to help the students record oral histories from women in their families and community. The histories and photos to go along with the recordings will be part of the school’s annual Women in History program next Thursday, where the students also will perform swing-dance choreography by Foster, paying tribute to Greenbelt’s early days. The stories also will be displayed as part of an exhibit at the Greenbelt Community Center from Labor Day weekend until October, along with stories of women that Foster has been researching.
“Very frequently the children who live in Springhill Lake and Franklin Park are disconnected from the old part of Greenbelt,” Foster said. “There’s a lot to celebrate in the old part, but we want to show people the good things about the new part, too.”
The end goal, Foster said, is to connect the histories of women in early Greenbelt to the stories of today’s women, as recorded by the students.
Foster is raising funds for the project on Kickstarter.com, with a goal of $3,352 to pay for the installation of the project at the Greenbelt Community Center and for dancers’ time.
“We want to show people that lived history is unfolding now,” Foster said. “It’s something we create.”
For information, go to www.alightdancetheater.org.