By Rita Felciano
On this chilly Monday morning in June, Zellerbach Hall’s stately staircase offers an unusual sight. Instead of Cal Performances patrons heading for an intermission drink, the steps are packed with middle-school students in sneakers and jeans, hoodies and sweatshirts. Girls sport ponytails, hair extensions, and buns; the few boys have gone in for buzz cuts and mohawks. The kids are also amazingly quiet. Impossible to say whether they are sleepy, indifferent, or nervous.
Welcome to the first day of the 2011 AileyCamp.
For the next six weeks, these 56 East Bay children, chosen from 220 applicants, will spend five days a week on the Cal campus—without spending a cent—taking classes in ballet, modern, African, and jazz dance. They will also go swimming, sailing, and on a scavenger hunt. They’ll talk, listen, think, and write.
Some of the 45 girls will wear leotards and tights; others will wear T-shirts and gym shorts, like the 11 boys. Everyone’s feet will be in ballet slippers. Hair will be out of the face. Nobody will wear any jewelry; nobody will use any electronic devices. “And everybody will have a blast,” says AileyCamp director David McCauley—a congenial, supportive authority figure that any mom or dad would love—to parents at this early June orientation meeting. McCauley, who has a broad smile and imposing figure, fell into dance at Wayne State University in Detroit when an instructor suggested that it might help his fencing skills.
And, at the end of the camp on Aug. 4, the kids will give a free 90-minute public performance at Zellerbach—on the same stage that has hosted world-famous groups like the Mark Morris Dance Company, the Royal Danish Ballet, and, of course, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Berkeley parent and non-dancer Roy Grigsby, whose three sons participated in the program starting in 2004, has been volunteering with the camp for the last eight years because he is convinced that his children became better people due to their AileyCamp experience. He says he simply “wants to give back.”
“It’s an extraordinary program; it offers a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to open doors to a wide range of children,” he says. “They are in a controlled environment in which they learn to interact with people. Dance is the focal point as something much larger than what is being offered.”
Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), founding artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, realized many of his dreams—to become a dancer, have his own company, give opportunities to African-American artists, and showcase American culture. AileyCamp was another dream—maybe his last. During the company’s frequent appearances in Kansas City, Ailey, who grew up dirt-poor, realized that local youth needed more than what the company’s modest schedule of school performances and outreach efforts could offer. So he launched a program specifically designed to widen middle-schoolers’ horizons. The first AileyCamp opened in Kansas City in June 1989. “Mr. Ailey lived long enough to see the first camp. He died a few months later,” says McCauley, a Navy veteran and former Ailey Company member, his face softening at the memory of his mentor.
Now celebrating its 10th year, the Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp at Cal Performances is one of 10 six-week summer programs nationwide that follow a curriculum developed by the dance company. The only one in California, Berkeley’s program caters to a broad range of underserved young people from Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and Albany between the ages of 11 and 14. The tuition-free program includes free dance attire, field trips, and daily breakfast and lunch; transportation is also offered for the students from Oakland. Cal Performances, which considers the camp the centerpiece of its educational activities, raises $250,000 a year for it. AileyCamp stretches its budget by relying on volunteers like Grigsby, some of whom return year after year to help with set-ups, field trips, writing assignments, visual arts projects, and costuming for a fashion show and the end-of-camp performance.
Many volunteer counselors and group leaders are former campers. One is AileyCamp alum and recent Smith College graduate, Yejide Najee-Ullah, a tall, self-confident young woman who, when McCauley introduces her on opening day, cringes at the memory of her reluctance to attend camp in 2002 at age 14. But then she enthusiastically throws her arms up in the air, breaking into a broad smile. “Just look at me now,” she says. “I practically live here.”
New group leader Giuliana Blasei introduces herself to her charges on opening day by telling them that she didn’t became a dancer until she was in college. “Before that I was into basketball. Yet I just graduated from Berkeley with a double major in sociology and dance, and I am going into education,” says Blasei, who researched the relationship between dance and education as an undergrad.
Despite the high-profile dance classes taught by prominent practitioners—“Mama” Naomi Diouf of Oakland’s Diamano Coura West African Dance Company is one—AileyCamp staff members are careful to say the program is not designed to train professional dancers; interest in dance or athletics is welcome but not a requirement.
At the core of AileyCamp’s mission lies a series of personal development workshops in which the students learn about real-life issues of concern to teens, like nutrition, sexual responsibility, conflict resolution, and how to make decisions. “Eleven to 14 is the pivotal time to catch those children who may lack certain developmental pieces,” McCauley explains. “They are no longer quite children and not yet adults. AileyCamp can give them some tools which are going to be helpful when they move out of middle school and go to high school when things really, really will change.”
Critical thinking skills, healthy self-esteem, and an awareness of options, taught in a fun yet highly structured environment, may be more important than a strong plié or a perfectly placed jump kick.
Yet dancing is a natural way for young people to get in touch with themselves. Learning to play the piano or fence requires a certain amount of skill before it becomes enjoyable, says McCauley. But “in dance you use your own body—everybody has one—and your movement is your movement,” he continues. “Somebody can teach you the steps of ‘Coppélia’ but in your own body you have already experienced joy and anger. Through these different dance styles, children are learning different modes of expression. They are learning about options. In a huge way this comes through in dance. They learn that if this happens, you can react to it this way or that way or this way. This might feel good but which one will serve you best?”
The camp selection process starts in January when McCauley, who has established relationships with local principals and counselors, visits schools to introduce the program. The first question (one he gets every time) from one of 15 students who slouch down in their seats at Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland early one February morning, is whether there will be hip-hop. “No,” he says, explaining the direct relationship between hip-hop and African dance. Can he demonstrate a dance move for them? “No, I am too old and my knees hurt,” he says, smiling.
The kids, many of them girls, seem vaguely interested. One rambunctious boy, the shortest of the group, acts up during the exercises McCauley puts the students through. His classmates ignore him. Later on you can hear the vice principal, who watched from the back of the auditorium, reprimand the boy in the office.
Reaching students who will profit the most from this summer experience can be a challenge. Since the target population is children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, parents or guardians are not always able to provide the necessary support. The applicants, for instance, have to arrange transportation to a personal interview. Those chosen for the program must then attend a compulsory orientation session for parents, guardians, and campers that outlines program details and students’ responsibilities. (“Fighting means automatic expulsion,” “Your camp clothes must be clean.”)
Some parents don’t speak English and have trouble negotiating the process, says McCauley, who spends a great deal of time writing reminders, making phone calls, and sometimes enlisting school counselors to make sure that a child who really wants to attend has a fair chance of being considered.
The interviews are a sensitive attempt to get a sense of the applicants, what their circumstances are at home and in school, and their aspirations. Grigsby has conducted these highly confidential interviews for a number of years and has learned to put the children at ease, telling them that there are no right and wrong answers. “Sometimes, there is discomfort giving that kind of information about yourself because it’s kind of embarrassing,” he says. “But it is also extraordinary that there are a number of kids who will tell you exactly what is happening to them.”
In the end, individual camp directors around the country decide which combination of kids will benefit the most. McCauley takes a flexible approach, preferring not to have all participants come from challenging backgrounds. “We all were once between 11 and 14 and had our issues. The campers learn from each other,” he says. He often gets phone calls from parents who “are not rich but have some means” and are reluctant to apply. He explains the program, then asks them to decide what to do. If their child is accepted, they may want to make a donation to AileyCamp.
Every year, camp staffers get a chance to see if their summer work has made a difference. When the Ailey Company performs at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall each spring, the previous summer’s campers are invited to a reunion. They take a master class from an Ailey dancer, watch an Ailey Company matinee, and have lunch. This past April, senior Ailey dancer Renee Robinson is doing the honors. After the young people perform a funky-moves dance they made during the previous summer, she gives them warm-ups. “Stretch over your heels, make your waistline long, keep your neck open, make space in your body,” she says, demonstrating the moves with her elegant long-limbed body, her hips so flexible that at one point her nose touches her knees.
Robinson’s grace aside, the past campers are a motley group, standing on the modestly lit Zellerbach Hall stage. Some of the kids have not even started their growth spurt; then there’s a boy with the beginning of a mustache. Some of the girls are skinny, others rounded. Several of them seem at home in dance. All respond individually to Robinson’s instructions; their bodies remember what they learned last summer.
Between exercises, Robinson asks about plans for the future. One girl, who has planted herself in the center of the first row, is sure that she wants “to become a dancer and join the Alvin Ailey Company.” The boy next to her is equally certain that he wants to become a professional hip-hop dancer. A girl in the back row talks about designing costumes and stage sets. But for the most part, the answers move beyond the arts to doctor, lawyer, chef, writer, and world traveler.
After the students relax a little, Robinson asks about their experiences at AileyCamp. Their answers range from “I made new friends,” and “I learned to express myself in different ways,” to “I was just happy to be there,” and “I came out of my comfort zone.” Perhaps the most touching reply comes from a clearly shy boy who remembers that “I could be myself.”
On parents’ orientation day in June, the incoming campers and adults streaming into Zellerbach Hall are black, brown, white, and every shade in between. Several campers look embarrassed and reluctant to be there. Others sit in the front row, at the edge of their seats. Many come with one adult, others flanked by two, and still others surrounded by younger siblings and a flock of family members. A few are on the waiting list, hoping that a spot will open up. (Two ultimately do.)
Blending students from different backgrounds makes the program rich, which is “what you need on many different levels,” Grigsby says. He has never forgotten, he says, one student who attended the camp years ago. “She was from East Oakland,” he recalls. “She had quite a temper when she first started. She came into the program one person—not very tolerant, not very socially adaptable—and left as a person who, you could see, had a very much greater understanding of what her potential was in the world.”
Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp at Cal Performances will perform “Transitions” on Thursday, Aug. 4, 7 p.m., at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley; free; advance tickets (recommended) available at the Zellerbach ticket office or (510) 642-9988.
Rita Felciano is a Bay Area dance writer and The Monthly’s longtime dance critic.
The discipline of dance: AileyCamp’s final performance, “I Been ’Buked,” last summer (top) and the boys’ rehearsal (bottom). Photos by Nicole Anthony (top) and Jim Dennis (bottom).
Ballet instructor Willie Anderson works with student Paolina Lu (right). Photo by Pete DaSilva.