Mayfair Arts Center. Photo by Malik Jackson

Timing is everything.

In 2020, Peggy Sutton was ready to retire and move to Arizona. She had held the role of Director of the Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts since 1978, but the pandemic had taken a toll, and enrollment was very low. 

Mayfair had been a staple of the South Side since 1957. The academy was founded by acclaimed tap dancer Tommy Sutton, Peggy’s father. He learned the art of tap dance from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; performed with the greats such as Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole and had a stint on Broadway with the hit, The Hot Mikado. Sutton started the dance school because while he was able to teach dance in Chicago, there was nowhere for his children or the children of his community to learn dance because of segregation. There proved to be demand for the school: enrollment skyrocketed from ninety kids to eight hundred over time. Well-known alumni of the Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts include former First Lady Michelle Obama, rapper-turned-actor Common, and actress Tempestt Bledsoe of The Cosby Show fame.

Around the same time that Peggy Sutton was considering retirement, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) was contemplating relocation from its studios in the Fine Arts Building in the Loop due to costs. According to an interview Sutton gave to New City Stage, she called CHRP’s founding director, Lane Alexander, to say, “Hi, goodbye.” Alexander inquired about the fate of the Mayfair Academy building and in January of this year, CHRP moved its education center and arts incubator—the American Rhythm Center—to the Mayfair Academy and relaunched the building as the Mayfair Arts Center (MAC).

In late July, I spoke with Alexander, who is also a tap dancer, choreographer, and teacher, as well as his team: program manager and former cast member of the Chicago Lion King production Kelli David-Low and  Chicago Human Rhythm Project artistic director and acclaimed tap dancer, Jumaane Taylor.

I learned that the Chicago Human Rhythm Project is essentially a massive, collaborative art’s  organization, with five core programs. The MAC serves as a public dance space and arts incubator, and keeps true to its Mayfair Academy roots by offering dance classes. Additionally, according to their website, they provide business development services and subsidized space for classes, rehearsals, informal performances and special events for small to medium-sized nonprofit arts organizations and independent artists. 

Rhythm World is one of CHRP’s oldest brands and is a summer tap dance festival.

CHRP also hosts Stomping Grounds, a two-month, city-wide festival showcasing percussive arts, such as African dance, flamenco, Mexican folklore, Irish dance, Indian Bharatanatyam, Kathak—all the people who strum with their feet. We All Got Rhythm is another core program, an arts education project that teaches students artistic skills, enhances social and emotional learning, and helps foster a “lifelong engagement with the arts.” Finally, Stone Soup Rhythm is a collective of emerging and established tap dancers. According to the site, the name Stone Soup Rhythms refers to a European fable in which a wayfaring stranger brings a small village together to create a communal feast by enticing each member to add a unique ingredient. 

Northside Southside Oneside, a dance programming series hosted by CHRP at the MAC, which is what got it on my radar: I received marketing materials at my home and wanted to check it out.

This six-month series of free classes and performances has the goal of reintroducing the community to the MAC. The hope is that this program will continue for a second and third year, depending on grant funding. The final class of the year is October 16th. Come out to watch the performances or even join in on the fun.

Mayfair Arts Center, 8701 S. Bennett Ave. Monday–Thursday, 9am–8pm; Saturday, 9am–5pm; closed Sundays and Fridays. (312) 922-1272

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