HARLEM — Outside the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, Milteri Tucker Concepcion, a performer with Bombazo Dance Co., twirled her dress and made eye contact with the drummer as the crowd chanted encouragement.
She was performing Bomba, the Puerto Rican dance derived from African traditions where the dancer dictates the drummer's rhythms with her movements. But Concepcion said she wished she was performing on the stage of the 2,800 square-foot-theater inside the center at East 106th Street and Lexington Avenue, which has been shuttered for almost two years.
"A space like this is necessary for me to present my work to the community," Concepcion said. "Not everyone has the money to see a Broadway show."
Concepcion was just one of the artists who performed poetry and read speeches as part of a protest about the fate of the theater. The artists said they could be performing inside if the city would speed the process of finalizing a contract with an operator.
"We were doing concerts, comedy and salsa here. It was busy for so long and then it just stopped," said Sery Colon of Agüeybana Productions.
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said there were complaints that there were no clear guidelines to rent the space and that it was not being fully utilized.
The EDC chose The Julio de Burgos Arts Alliance, a consortium of three groups, to operate the theater in November 2011 but has not been able to come to an agreement with the group since then. The city blamed leadership changes at both organizations and Hurricane Sandy with slowing the process.
The city agency announced Tuesday that they would begin leasing the space to community groups until an operator is chosen.
"We still have questions," said Marina Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation, one of the groups that organized the protest.
EDC said details of the plan would be forthcoming.
"It's a crime that it's cheaper for me to put on a show Downtown than in my own back yard," said poet Frank Perez, who teaches writing in East Harlem.
Mark-Viverito said she encouraged the plan to rent the space but still believes the new lease deal with The Julio de Burgos Arts Alliance will turn out to be a good thing.
Artists like Luis Cordero, co-founder of Puerto Rican Institute for Development of the Arts, remained skeptical.
"Show me the money. Until we see something concrete we will be out here," he said.
Standing on a small soapbox, Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation, one of the organizers of the protest, read a poem by Julia de Burgos.
Jesús "Papoleto" Meléndez, one of the founders of the Nuyorican movement, also read a poem.
Eugene Rodriguez, chair of the Puerto Rican Intercultural Drama Ensemble, gave a dramatic speech reading with tears streaming down his face.
"This place could be the envy of the world but it lies here closed," he said.