Sometimes dance is the least important part of a dance performance. For the kids who performed in Berkeley/Oakland AileyCampâ€™s season finale at Zellerbach Hall, dance, to paraphrase Robert Louis Stephenson, was about being what they are and becoming what they are capable of becoming.
â€œI Been â€™Buked,â€ an excerpt from Alvin Aileyâ€™s Revelations, opened the show. The kids stretched their arms skyward, leaned and pliÃ©d, evoking the quiet intensity of the original in their own sincerely felt, imperfectly synchronized way. But technique and precision were unimportant on this night: developing the discipline to put the show together, and allowing themselves to perform from the heart, is the essence of the performance, and of AileyCamp.
â€œMovement is so connected to our emotions and our understanding of the world. Weâ€™ve made this arbitrary separation of physicality and mental ability,â€ said camp director David McCauley. â€œWhen [campers] have breakdowns and meltdowns, weâ€™ll take a moment, and the guidance counselor or group leader will take a minute, stop, talk, work out what happened. Why did it happen? How can you work that out so it doesnâ€™t happen next time? Or when that happens, what choices can you make? And then itâ€™s like, how are you feeling? Have we worked it out? OK, letâ€™s get back to class.â€
Fifty students ages 11 to 14 attended this yearâ€™s camp. For six weeks, they took daily master classes in modern, ballet, jazz, and African dance and participated in daily workshops on personal development and conflict resolution. Many of the kids come from families with straitened finances, and camp is free to all, down to dancewear, breakfast and lunch, backpacks and transportation to and from Zellerbach Hall.
Group interaction and personal guidance teach them important skills, but the dancing opens them up in ways that listening to a teacher never could. â€œDance is complete exposure,â€ ballet instructor Priya Shah said. â€œPhysically itâ€™s exposing because your body is exposed, people are looking at you; you canâ€™t build a wall around yourself because youâ€™re already completely exposed. For a lot of the students, theyâ€™ve masked themselves in different ways to fit into the communities they need to fit into and be who they need to be in those places. But when they come here, all of thatâ€™s stripped down.â€
More than a place for young dancers to have fun all summer, AileyCamp is also an intervention for at-risk youth, and no dance experience is required. Some of the kids come from intact families while others live in foster homes. Camp is the first experience many of them have with consistent, reassuring guidanceâ€”and firm boundaries.
Group leader Yejide Najee-Ullah attended Berkeleyâ€™s first AileyCamp, in 2002, and it changed her life. â€œIâ€™m so hard on them because I needed that at that age,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™ve seen some of my kids in my group, first week not be able to string a sentence together in front of four people who were looking at them, and not be able to follow a [dance] combination, and now theyâ€™re featured in pieces, and their focus is there, and their drive is there, and theyâ€™ve completely grown in just a couple of weeks.â€
As they practice technique that will improve their dancing in any genre, campers learn life skills that will help them achieve their dreams and goals. â€œThereâ€™s a lot of new ways to solve problems,â€ said 13-year-old Jolisa of Oakland. â€œBefore, I would just go off, and it would be a big old fight. But now I know, other than ignore them because theyâ€™re just messing with me, I could just change the subject.â€
Most of the campers grudgingly took ballet class, and in interviews they consistently complained about having to point their toes. But their comedic ballet, â€œAlley Ensemble,â€ was a hit with the audience, especially when the magician character used a giant rubber ball to knock down the white-clad ballerinas like bowling balls.
After the dark, moody â€œChosen Voices,â€ which combined martial-arts moves and modern dance, some of the girls segued into a Gullah stick-pounding sequence, and the boys, shirtless and draped in bright sarongs, stomped and chanted through a chest-pounding Maori haka. One had to think the kids were getting mighty tired by this point, but they were about to take things to a whole new level.
Thrumming hypnotically on his djembe drum, Madiou Sao Diouf led a group of five musicians in a brief intro as kids in brilliant African clothing and headdresses ran in from the wings. Suddenly Zellerbach Hall exploded with color, movement and sound. The dancers leaped and kicked and threw themselves into traditional dances of Ivory Coast (Bolowee), Guinea (LibertÃ©) and Senegal (Mandiani) while the band pounded furiously behind them.
Itâ€™s easy to think that kids today are only into hip-hopâ€¦but Iâ€™ve never seen hip-hop danced with more focus and passion than these kids unleashed. Channeled through those ancient steps, their energy could have powered the Berkeley campus for a week. The standing ovation went on for minutes, and the kids sparkled with pride.
Surely much of the credit for that wondrous performance belongs to Naomi Gedo Diouf, artistic director of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company and AileyCampâ€™s African dance teacher. The kids call her Mama.
Twelve-year-old Toni of Oakland summed up her impact: â€œMama is nice; she tells you straightforward, she tells you the truth. She tells you donâ€™t stick your stomach out, and she tells you life lessons. Like, she teaches us to be grateful; she tells us about Ghana, and the children who have to get in the war. When weâ€™re bad she tells us we should be grateful. Like if weâ€™re talking too much, or weâ€™re not paying attention.â€
Itâ€™s a different kind of learning for lots of the campersâ€”consistent rules meant to strengthen their wings rather than clip them. â€œTheyâ€™re constantly being told what they can and canâ€™t do, and what their limits are,â€ Najee-Ullah continued. â€œAnd seeing that lightbulb go off when they realize that they can exceed the limits that people have set for them, thatâ€™s why I do it. That healing that they get, and that look on their face, thatâ€™s all I need.â€
After the African showstopper, the Ailey-tribute final was practically an afterthought, but quite a nice one. Three girls reinterpreted Judith Jamisonâ€™s classic Cry as a sweet trio. An ensemble re-created “Wade in the Water,” another excerpt from Revelations, down to the swaths of fabric waving over the floor like a purifying river. And the entire camp came together to finish the show with the somber Hymn, which finished with McCauley and all the camp staff joining in the final steps. Only the most cynical eyes were dry at this point.
On the surface, AileyCamp is about dance, but itâ€™s really about being, and becoming, and expressing yourself. And learning to be a member of a community. McCauley told the kids, â€œ’We all stand on the shoulders of someone else.’ That got a laugh. I said, â€˜You might think itâ€™s funny, but itâ€™s not. If people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King did not come and do certain things, where would we be?â€™ And by we, I mean all of us. It goes across the board to anyone whoâ€™s done something for the human race. Where would we be?â€
AileyCamp can accommodate up to 80 students, but budget constraints limited this yearâ€™s camp to 50. If you or your company would like to support the program, please contact Cal Performances at email@example.com.
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