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Stepping Up

June 10, 2011
by Katherine Luce
a kid performing modern dance

The AileyCamp summer program teaches kids more than dance.

For the past ten years, about 80 middle-school kids have descended on Zellerbach Hall for six weeks during the summer. They dance as hard as they can all day, eat at the campus dining halls, and generally take over. They study modern, ballet, jazz, and African dance, along with personal development and creative communication, with teachers who are often current or former members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The camp ends with a standing-room-only performance at Zellerbach Hall, which always includes “Revelations,” Ailey’s signature piece. This might look like an intensive devoted to fine-tuning the skills of future professional dancers, but AileyCamp is actually something much more ambitious.

Its goal is to use dance to develop strong, capable, self-motivated people, specifically to benefit those children who, in the words of the main AileyCamp website, “are most in-need of knowing there can be a bright future.” David McCauley, the director of the Berkeley AileyCamp, stops short at defining the AileyCamp kids as “at-risk,” though, explaining that he really sees all kids that age as “at-risk.” One decision can affect their future lives “in a bad way.” Anyone who has ever been in the same room as a middle-school kid knows what he means.

The Berkeley camp is celebrating its tenth year, but the AileyCamp program began in 1989 at the Ailey Company’s Kansas City, Missouri, home. There are now camps in eight additional cities as well. The camps draw on two groups of kids: one more clearly at risk because of family, socioeconomic, or other factors, and the other from more stable environments. The camp, not so incidentally, is entirely free, including uniforms, sweatshirts, field trips, breakfast, and lunch. Kids can attend camp only once, because it’s so popular, though they can return as volunteers and/or group leaders.

Can six weeks of focused dance education, divorced from the kids’ everyday environments and the pressures they face there, really create positive change? Well, yes it can.

Jolisa Davis is very physically gifted; dancing was not the most challenging part of camp for her when she attended last year. Right now, she studies modern and hip-hop dance, she’s on a swim team and training to be a junior lifeguard, she has done gymnastics since she was 4, and she figure-skates, all in addition to schoolwork. She needs more than her physical facility to move forward in life, though, given that she has ADD and in the past has acted out in school. Her current home-school teacher, Ajuana Black, says other teachers warned her against taking on Jolisa as a student, and it took Jolisa three attempts to be accepted at AileyCamp. Her mom Cynthia Thompson says that she was so nervous about Jolisa succeeding at camp that she couldn’t go to the orientation; she couldn’t bear “one more disappointment.” Jolisa herself says her “attitude and discipline changed” because of the camp; Ajuana agrees that there’s a “tremendous” difference. A year ago, Jolisa had trouble sitting for more than ten minutes, but now she sits easily for a 40-minute interview.

AileyCamp requires more than just the discipline to show up and do the camp activities for six weeks. As Jolisa puts it, “We couldn’t just stay with ourselves. We had to communicate to get through things.” David McCauley explicitly says that the camp’s goal is to get the kids together so they can learn from each other. Yejide Najee-Ullah attended camp its first year and has been involved every year since. Now out of college and interning with a marketing company in Boston, she still “lives and breathes AileyCamp” and keeps Alvin Ailey’s photo on her fridge. She points out that in dance class the kids who get a certain move teach it to the others, who learn more easily from their peers than they would from an adult with extensive dance training. The camp’s philosophy of personal responsibility is “not just for yourself but for those around you.”

The importance of connecting runs through the camp. Mateo Galguera says he thought about hanging back, being a “loner” instead of engaging with the other kids when he was a camper in 2010. Mateo shows no signs of having struggled in school; he stood to get something different out of AileyCamp. Mateo participated in the camp in the summer between changing from a small school, where he had been with the same 26 kids since kindergarten, to a much larger school. He credits camp with giving him the tools to make the transition with confidence.

Just meeting and talking with kids his own age seems easy to him now, after the process of meeting new people, “expressing myself and putting myself out there,” and performing at Zellerbach. Mateo admits that some days during camp the idea of sitting and thinking in a classroom sounded pretty good, compared to a full day of dancing, but he says, “If you want something, you have to kick it forward.” Now, he says his friends “walk around like zombies,” but he’s different. He’ll remember the camp for the rest of his life.

Some of that new attitude may be inherent in dance training itself. Mira-Lisa Katz, M.A. ’93, Ph.D. ’99, who sometimes lectures at Cal, studied a group of young women who had been dancing together for years. She found that in dance, students observe and share in each other’s progress. One of the dancers said, “You learn something with someone when you dance in a way that you can’t really learn something with someone in an academic way.… It makes you feel confident in your ability. You have camaraderie.” Another key aspect of dance training is that it’s incremental. Being able to do a triple turn means you’ve learned to do a double turn, which means you’re comfortable with a single turn, which means you’re strong in the position you take for the turn. As Jolisa puts it, “Dancing is an obstacle—you have to go through all those different stages to get that one move.”

Mateo and Jolisa were both impressed by that moment on Zellerbach’s stage when the stage lights came on and blinded them, so they could only hear the audience. Yejide says that every Ailey camper remembers the moment before the dancing starts; it’s the only quiet time they have together in the entire six weeks. If you ask campers about it, they will be silent for a moment while they remember how it felt. Jolisa found the silence of the audience a little scary; Mateo describes it as “exciting, but a calm excitement … a tension over everything.” But he felt calm, because he was ready for the performance. Jolisa also felt ready: “I could do the whole performance with my eyes closed.”

At the performance, Jolisa was in all three African dances and did back flips as the other dancers cartwheeled behind her. She and some other dancers went down the aisles between the audience, and she says, “A lot of little kids wanted to touch us … because they thought we were famous.” Mateo describes, with awe and pride, driving past Zellerbach, noticing that Yo-Yo Ma was playing there, and thinking, yes, he has performed there, too. All the AileyCamp kids saw the Ailey company perform at Zellerbach in the spring, including “Revelations,” which the kids had performed the summer before. Jolisa says, “Wow, that’s how we looked on stage, kind of like a reflection almost.” Jolisa is coming back this summer as a volunteer.

A point of clarification: the full name of the program is Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp at Cal Performances. Not only does Cal Performances provide the venues for rehearsals, classes, and the grand finale, they also raise the quarter-million dollars needed each year to keep the program free to campers.

Katherine Luce is a Berkeley native, a writer, former dancer, teacher, and librarian who lives and works in the East Bay. This is her fifth piece for California magazine.
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