Dozens of dancers gathered Sunday night in a graffiti-filled alley off North Avenue in Station North, bouncing and gyrating in playful competition surrounded by the colorful spray-paint art.
Nineteen-year-old Marquise "Noodles" Caldwell was often the center of attention at such events. But on this night, his friends were dancing in his memory: Three days earlier, Caldwell and two others known in the local dance scene — Franklin Morris and Tyrik Adams, both 17 — were shot to death in North Baltimore.
Their deaths, part of the surge in homicides that brought the number of killings in Baltimore this year to 208 on Monday morning, were another reminder of the challenges of keeping Baltimore's youth safe.
"In Baltimore, [people] have no love for anyone. It's not a safe, secure situation," said Errigh "Neek" LaBoo, who organizes club music dance competitions under the Bmore Than Dance banner. "At the end of the day, these kids run to the streets because it's all they know. But there's so many things we try to do to give them opportunities."
Friends remembered Caldwell as a talented dancer who could write rhymes and tell jokes. Court records also show increasing scrapes with the law. In late July, a Baltimore judge signed a warrant for his arrest for a violation of probation that would have landed him in jail without bail had it been served.
Caldwell became involved in dancing about eight years ago, when he responded to a Facebook post by Tonya Douglass seeking new members for her dance group, called Homicide, or H's.
"Instead of them out here killing and fighting and getting in trouble, they're supposed to dance their pain away with me," Douglass said.
Caldwell was raw when he first became involved in the competitions, LaBoo recalled, but he had an outsize confidence.
"He was full of energy," LaBoo said. "One of the first times he ran up to me and said, 'My name is Noodles, and I'm going to be the 'King of Baltimore'" — the title bestowed on the top dancer — "'and I'll battle anybody out here.'"
LaBoo said finding space to hold dance competitions is difficult. When he first met Caldwell, LaBoo was staging the events at a pavilion at the Inner Harbor, but police told him to stop.
"Anything positive seems to be shut down here," LaBoo said. "Because the outlets don't have that consistency, we lose them to the streets."
LaBoo said Caldwell started to drift away from the scene after the killing of Erwin "Earl" Daniels in 2012.
Daniels had run Caldwell's dance crew, called Sumthn Serious. Daniels ran practices in his backyard, and held participants to a high standard that included holding them out of competition if they didn't meet goals for school report cards.
Daniels let Caldwell live with him.
"[Caldwell] needed help," said Daniels' mother, Latrice Harris. "Nobody could reach him like my son."
Daniels' killing at his home in October 2012 "took a lot of the passion away from them," LaBoo said. "They didn't have the same drive to dance. When he passed, they lost hope, they lost focus."
But Caldwell continued to dance. Videos on YouTube show him flashing moves that drew raves from the crowd.
"He was friendly, but he loved the competition," said Daquon "Bugz" Stokes, 22.
In February, police say, an officer caught Caldwell selling cocaine in an open-air drug market in the 700 block of Glenwood Ave. Caldwell received probation before judgment in June and was placed in the state's high-scrutiny Violence Prevention Initiative.
In July, Caldwell and Morris — whose father was killed three years ago — were arrested after a man whose home was burglarized in Baltimore County tracked down his belongings on Craigslist and set up a meeting to purchase some of the items.
The man tipped off police, who say they found Caldwell and Morris with an array of stolen items and a .38-caliber revolver and a .32-caliber revolver loaded with full-metal-jacket rounds.
Caldwell and Morris posted bail of $85,000 and $55,000, respectively, and were released from jail. The arrest triggered a probation violation warrant for Caldwell, which was pending at the time of his death.
On Thursday night, the three teens — Caldwell, Morris and Adams — were together in the 700 block of Willow Ave. when they were each shot in the head.
Police said two were carrying guns when they were found. Police have not disclosed a motive.
Douglass, of the H's dance crew, said she saw Caldwell the day of the shooting. She told him she was putting together a dance show and needed him to attend, and he said he would.
At Sunday night's vigil at Graffiti Alley in Station North, Douglass implored the young men to stay away from the streets.
"I need y'all to stick together," she told them. "You can knock on my door if you ain't got nowhere to go."
Douglass said if any of them felt angry, there was a simple solution: "Dance. Dance! Do what we do. And that's dance the pain away, that anger away."