Kids + Ailey + Cal Performances = magic

In a vast changing room for Zellerbach Hall, all is empty and still, except for a handful of volunteers whispering in pairs. Children’s costumes are strewn chaotically across the floor, and occasional cheers waft in from the auditorium. A young girl runs in, distress in her eyes and sweat cutting paths through the rosy blush on her cheeks. She has just stumbled during a West African dance number, but has gotten right back up and stepped up her technique and stage presence as the piece progressed. Her teacher catches her shoulders, looks proudly into her eyes, and says, “You’re a dancer now.”

The girl is a member of the 2012 Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp at Cal Performances — an arts education program for underserved youth that was conceived by legendary 20th-century dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey and is produced and managed by Cal Performances. The date is Aug. 2, and the occasion is the culminating performance for nearly 1,700 family members, friends and fans of the camp’s 51 participants. And that moment epitomizes what I think the camp is all about — not to train professional dancers, but to empower kids to discover who they are, even when they fall.

As a dance and theater artist, usher at Cal Performances and UC Berkeley staff editor, I had wanted to volunteer with AileyCamp for years. What a privilege it was, then, to finally help out however I could — gluing shells onto costumes, doing hair and makeup before the finale, picking up pizza. While I was part of the “Ailey family” for only three days, I can say with certainty that the camp is nothing short of transformational.

In its 11th season at Berkeley — the only West Coast site among 10 nationwide — the free six-week camp brings 11- to 14-year-olds from Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland to the UC Berkeley campus daily. Cal Performances manages the program, which provides the children with transportation, dance clothing, food and field trips, in addition to rigorous dance training and opportunities for personal development. Many of the campers have never taken a dance class because they lack either the means or the opportunity. But they are not chosen for their technical abilities; they are selected for their interest and enthusiasm.

While the campers may not go on to pursue an artistic career, the skills they learn apply far beyond the dance floor. Coordination could improve a girl’s performance on the soccer field. Learning how to listen and focus could help a boy get better grades. Working together with respect and kindness instills the value of teamwork. Being encouraged to express anger in a healthy way, to write a poem about what they believe in or to take responsibility for misbehavior teaches them that their feelings, thoughts and actions matter. Such life skills are critical at an age when questions such as “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?” loom large, especially for kids who face tough challenges in their homes, neighborhoods and schools.

At the final dress rehearsal in Cal Performances’ primary performing arts venue, I witnessed the results of an affirmation that the campers repeated daily: “I will not use the word ‘can’t’ to define my possibilities.” The children performed excerpts inspired by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s actual repertoire, including Night Creature, a tribute to jazz music, and Revelations, the company’s most famous piece, set to the black spirituals of Ailey’s Texas upbringing. The kids aced these technically precise pieces, bringing me to tears as I realized how powerful it was that they were carrying on Ailey’s vision and legacy.

They also performed original works that celebrated aspects of the African American experience — hip-hop culture, the infectious exuberance of West African dance and music, heroes such as Barack Obama or Nina Simone — or brought into raw focus some of the community’s gravest concerns — racism, violence, murder. In one piece, the young dancers wore gray hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, a teen killed last February in Florida by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Some movements mimicked the action of being shot and falling to the ground; others evoked prison bars, as the kids scooted on their backs with footstools turned upside down on their chests. Inquiring how the teachers decided on such intense material, I learned that the youngsters help choose their subjects. They are active participants in the creative process, responding to what is most authentic and meaningful to them.

As demanding as camp is, the kids do know how to have fun. I escorted about 10 girls to the campus’s Recreational Sports Facility to shower before the show. As a comparatively privileged, 40-something stranger, I felt awkward watching over them in such a self-conscious state. But as they played favorite songs on their phones in the dressing room, I started humming along and bobbing to the beat. When I told them I was a dancer, they begged me to show them some moves, but I asked them to teach me something instead. Not only did I sufficiently fake my way through the Gas Pedal, a popular hip-hop dance, my noble efforts had them laughing hysterically, proving to them that even outsiders care enough to try to connect.

Fifteen minutes before curtain time, the teachers rallied the campers for one final check-in. Smile, they said. Breathe. Take your time. Be your best. Be proud. Derrick Minter, the modern dance teacher, said he remembered Ailey’s fascination with the elegance of dancers, the way they carried themselves both on and off stage. There’s no doubt that what the campers lack in terms of life experience or the refined grace of a professional, they make up for with their courage, determination, ability to grow and sense of what is possible. Elegant creatures indeed.

Amy Cranch is a principal editor in University Relations at UC Berkeley by day and a dance and theater artist by night. She primarily studies and performs under legendary dancer/choreographer Anna Halprin.