AileyCamp Fosters Young Talent
By Aimee Dingwell
Onstage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, moving in and out of sharp shadows falling from overhead lights, are 100 children ages 11 to 14, boys, girls, all shapes and sizes, but dancing as one. United in movement, their smiles are as wide as their sashays, split leaps, and outstretched arms. The freedom and joy of this group belies the struggles many of these children face when they are offstage, out of the studio, not dancing, writing, and exploring the power of expression.
They’re part of a program in which the esteemed Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation chooses select underprivileged youngsters from nine cities across the US each summer to participate in AileyCamp, a six-week regimen of disciplined dance training, creative writing and art, and personal development.
The aim is to enable campers to develop their own voices, self-love, and respect for others. Alvin Ailey himself held that “Dance is for everybody,” and strongly believed in using dance to enhance the lives of underserved children. Many have dreams of becoming professional dancers one day themselves, while some just want to have fun or learn about the arts.
Either way, their lives are about to be transformed. “I see almost a thousand children every summer in our nine programs. And I see the same needs and same desires and wishes in a child in California as I do in a child in Miami,” says Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, national director of AileyCamp, a spokesperson and master teacher for Arts in Education, and a former principal dancer for 12 years. “And that’s basically to be heard. And to think.”
Thomas-Schmitt, who has overseen the AileyCamps since 1999, has a unique perspective: “I am myself a product. I grew up in the projects.” And while she notes that her mother worked hard to offer her exposure to different experiences, “a lot of these young people do not [have those advantages],” she says. “It’s amazing to ask a child what they think, what they feel about a color, and they tell you they don’t know. Sometimes they’re afraid; sometimes they don’t know what to say. They can’t believe someone is asking their opinion and that it’s valid. We do a lot of writing in our personal development class, and a lot of exploring, and the stories they have and they’re experiencing are heart wrenching.”
Campers are from grades six through eight, and enter a demanding, rigorous program. While previous dance experience is not a factor in selection, campers must be willing to show up and be ready to learn to dance, from 8:30 to 3:30 each day. They take three to four dance classes every day and find their voice through arts, while learning perspective on conflict resolution, selfesteem, peer pressure, nutrition, and how to be the best they can be.
While camp uniforms—leotards, tights, and ballet shoes—and breakfast and lunch are provided, campers must agree to provide something else: a healthy attitude and a commitment to themselves and the program. Dance is simply the vehicle through which the campers learn a sense of accomplishment and responsibility.
“Dance, and all of the arts, requires follow-through. You can’t start a class and not complete it,” says Thomas-Schmitt. “It doesn’t happen by osmosis. You have to work. Dance requires discipline, focus, and commitment. And anything they want to do—whether they want to be a soccer player or a cook—requires the same elements.”
This lesson is part of 10 daily affirmations the campers recite every morning and at the end of every day. The affirmations are so powerful, in fact, that the entire Arsht Center staff often adopts them. “For that six-week period, with the kids and teachers being here day in and day out, there’s an energy that resonates in our offices,” says M. John Richard, Arsht Center president and CEO. “You’ll often see on our doors the daily 10 affirmations of the camp, not the least of which is ‘I will not use the word can’t to define my possibilities.’ So we live it, we breathe it, and it’s in our DNA. And it’s magnified by their presence and how alive they make these buildings come.”
Entering its fifth summer, AileyCamp Miami was founded on the idea, says Richard, that the experience for the kids collectively is engagement and discipline in the art of dance, but more importantly to create a greater sense of self-esteem. “It isn’t the outcome goal that the dancers are going to end up with the Ailey Foundation or the Miami City Ballet. It’s about that crucial intersection of time that they are in middle school and they need to discover each other, who they are, and that the experience be robust in the development of positive self-esteem.”
Beginning June 24, the camp culminates in a final performance at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall on Saturday, August 3. “One of the highlights of my year, every single year, is the final performance, when 1,600 to 1,700 parents and guardians attend,” says Richard. “I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”