Taliyah Moses (center) rehearses for the May 2 showcase.
The four girls are full of energy as they rehearse a dance they’ve choreographed to Beyoncé’s “Flawless.” But when they get the giggles, Tiffany Merritt-Brown, a senior in the University of Wisconsin’s dance department, urges them to focus: “Don’t let the laughter distract you from the dancing,” she says. “Come on...I believe in you.”
Taleah Cameron, Precious Owens, Jada Shaw and Destiny Madge, who range in age from 11 to 14, are part of the Performing Ourselves dance program for girls who attend some of Madison’s community centers.
The third annual Performing Ourselves Showcase: I Dance Because... is slated for May 2 at the Margaret H’Doubler Performance Space at Lathrop Hall.
The girls, who also rehearse in Lathrop Hall, talk with Brown about how to maintain their formations and which poses to strike. In less than 45 minutes they make significant progress in refining the movements and moving together as a group.
Kate Corby, an associate professor of dance at UW, came up with the concept of Performing Ourselves in 2011 when she realized that her “little sister” with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, a sixth-grader, had few appealing options for physical activity. Corby collaborated with Mariah LeFeber, associate lecturer in the dance department and a dance/movement therapist, to design a dance and wellness curriculum for girls in local community centers. They secured funding for an initial matinee performance featuring girls from Kennedy Heights Community Center.
In just four years, the program has grown to six community center sites; this year’s performance involves more than 50 girls, ranging in age from 7 to 14 from the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, the East Madison Community Center, the Goodman Community Center, Kennedy Heights, the Lussier Community Education Center and the Vera Court Neighborhood Center. Cameron, Owens, Shaw and Madge attend programs at Kennedy Heights.
LeFeber says it is especially important to offer dance to girls in underserved communities: “Dance doesn’t have to be set apart in an ivory tower. We are all meant to move, and we all have a story to tell with our bodies.”
The program, which pays UW-Madison dance students as instructors, aims to teach technical dance skills. But LeFeber says it also help girls “develop a sense of belonging” and resiliency skills.
The program uses pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg’s “7 C’s theory” (competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control) to focus on resilience. The community center groups are assigned one of the words to use as a creative prompt.
The Kennedy Heights girls worked on control. “When we pose we are showing how to keep in control of our bodies,” says Cameron.
For the upcoming performance, the instructors also conducted mini-interviews with the dancers, asking them to complete the thought, “I dance because...”
The girls’ responses will appear in a video that will accompany the performance. One said it was “cool.” Another said it relieved stress. One response was more poignant: “It’s the only thing I have to look forward to.”
Corby says the UW student teachers have also benefitted from working with the girls. Many have gone on to teach dance in public settings after graduation.
“The unexpected gift is that it has shaped their undergraduate experience and education. It has also given them something on their resume that makes them really viable,” says LeFeber.
Merritt-Brown says the girls are developing abilities that will benefit them later in life — “things like negotiating conflict, communicating ideas clearly, compromising, working in a group, being a leader and being a follower, respect and boundaries of personal space (physically and otherwise). They can carry that over into their behavior at school and interactions with other people.”
For now, the girls seem most excited about performing on a real stage in front of friends and family. The Kennedy Heights girls are particularly enthusiastic about their favorite section of the dance — a series of high, turning kicks — and a new addition, a volunteer makeup artist who will be available prior to the performance. Says Corby: “There will be glitter.”