Arts & culture, Performing arts

Podcast: AileyCamp — so much more than a dance camp

For 13-year-old Makayla Bozeman, AileyCamp at Cal Performances gave her the chance to learn how to navigate her complex social world

As a kid, Makayla Bozeman could not stop dancing. She’d go to bed late because she was dancing. She’d wake up in the middle of the night to dance. When she was 13, she applied to AileyCamp — a six-week summer program run by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley where 11- to 14-year-olds from the East Bay learn dance from professional choreographers. She soon realized that AileyCamp was so much more than a dance camp — it was a chance to discover who she was and learn how to navigate her complex social world.

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Dancers hold their arms in the air on stage, looking focused and determined

Makayla Bozeman (front) is in AileyCamp this year. “I don’t know what I’d do without dance,” she says. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Schecter)

Following is a written version of Fiat Vox podcast episode #39: “AileyCamp — so much more than a dance camp:”

As a kid, Makayla Bozeman could not stop dancing. Even if she tried. But she didn’t try because she loved it so much.

“I remember when I was little, I used to go to sleep really late because I was dancing,” says Makayla. “Then I’d wake up at like three in the morning to dance.”

It was a way she expressed herself. Something that she just had to do. Something that helped her realize that if she tried hard, she could succeed.

“Dance is the one very consistent thing about my life,” she says. “And I’ve done all these things and I’ve been told, ‘You’re not really the best at this. You can’t do that.’ Dance is the one thing where I’ve been confident in myself. I know I can do this. This is my way of expression that I can show myself to the world.”

David McCauley leads affirmations with campers

David McCauley has been the director of AileyCamp since it began at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances 17 years ago. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Schecter)

So, when was 13, she applied to AileyCamp. It’s a six-week summer program run by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley where 11- to 14-year-olds from the East Bay learn dance from professional choreographers.

There are 63 campers this year, who all take ballet, modern, jazz and African dance classes. And they take two others — creative communications and personal development.

They start early in the morning and participate in five 50-minute sessions every day. Every morning begins how all of our mornings should begin — with affirmations.

“I will greet this day with love in my heart,” recite the campers in unison. “I am a winner…”

There are 10 of them — they’re all great. But my favorite one comes at the end: “I will not use the word “can’t” to define my possibilities…”

David McCauley has been the director of AileyCamp at Cal Performances since it began at Berkeley 17 years ago. He says the program is about so much more than learning to dance.

Dancers dance onto stage, waving their arms gracefully

(UC Berkeley video by Ben Schecter)

“Personal development is really the heart of what AileyCamp is about,” says McCauley. “It’s really not about making the youngsters into professional dancers, although we give them the most professional training we can do. Some of them have observed things that I really don’t think any child should have to. But sometimes they’ll need a way to think about that, to work through it.”

David talks to campers who are sitting on stairs

David talks to campers (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Schecter)

But he says not everyone comes in with big problems they need to work through. Just being that age can be hard enough.

I remember being in middle school very well. I was extremely small — I was 4-foot-8 and maybe 85 pounds when I was 14. I kind of wanted to disappear, and seem like I didn’t care about anything.

But deep down, I wanted to succeed — to get good grades and be liked. David says AileyCamp helps them navigate this complex and confusing time in their lives.

“And so, it’s to learn to take a breath,” he says. “To think about what you’re about to say. Make sure you’re saying the right thing and that you’re also thinking about your part in it. If something has happened, you know, that it’s not just one way, you you you. There’s also the ‘I’ that’s involved in that and that is sometimes a difficult one for the campers to realize.”

AileyCamp students perform on stage

AileyCamp dancers give their final one-hour performance. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Schecter)

“Right,” I say. “I mean, it’s difficult for adults to recognize a lot of the time…

“Yeah,” David says, laughing.

“It seems like everyone would benefit a lot from going to AileyCamp,” I add.

“I get a request for adult AileyCamp all the time,” David laughs.

The first AileyCamp started in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1989. Now, there are 10 across the country. The idea for the program came from Alvin Ailey, the founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

David was a student and performer with the company from 1976 through 1989. He says the way Alvin Ailey lived his life continues to inspire his own work with AileyCamp.

“Just the way that he was with his dancers, with his students, with employees, was very very special,” he says. “He cared a lot. He cared about excellence and he cared about people doing their best. And because that was given to me, I really feel like that’s something that needs to go on. Because some of them don’t have that. Some children just don’t get it.

So, for those of us who have been lucky enough to have that in our lives, I think we need to make sure that that doesn’t go out. That it stays alive. And maybe you ignite that in the next person.”

dancers on stage wearing ballet outfits

Final performance (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Schecter)

Since AileyCamp began at Berkeley, more than 1,000 campers have gone through the program. Everything is paid for by Cal Performances — meals, bus rides, dance clothes, field trips, which they take every Friday — so it’s totally free to the campers.

For Makayla, it became a home away from home. A place she could be herself.

“They don’t judge you based on where you come from or what you’ve done,” says Makayla. “They really accept you into their place, into their area. It’s a really safe environment where you can learn and grow.”

At the end of six weeks, campers give a final one-hour performance at Zellerbach Hall for family, friends and the community. It’s a time for them to show off their hard work and their dedication to being the best they can be.

“It’s like, things you never dreamed of are waiting for you,” he says. “You just have to open your eyes and try and go for them. All of this is open to you. Any place in the world, anything you want to do. But you have to look for it. You have to believe you can do it. And then do it. Just fight for it.”

The application period for next summer’s program starts in January and will run through mid-February. To learn more, visit Cal Performances.