Sometimes dance is the least important part of a dance performance. For the kids who performed in Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp’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.
“I Been ’Buked,” an excerpt from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, opened the show. The kids stretched their arms skyward, leaned and pliéd, 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.
“Movement is so connected to our emotions and our understanding of the world. We’ve made this arbitrary separation of physicality and mental ability,” said camp director David McCauley. “When [campers] have breakdowns and meltdowns, we’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 doesn’t happen next time? Or when that happens, what choices can you make? And then it’s like, how are you feeling? Have we worked it out? OK, let’s get back to class.”
Fifty students ages 11 to 14 attended this year’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. “Dance is complete exposure,” ballet instructor Priya Shah said. “Physically it’s exposing because your body is exposed, people are looking at you; you can’t build a wall around yourself because you’re already completely exposed. For a lot of the students, they’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 that’s stripped down.”
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 guidance—and firm boundaries.
Group leader Yejide Najee-Ullah attended Berkeley’s first AileyCamp, in 2002, and it changed her life. “I’m so hard on them because I needed that at that age,” she said. “I’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 they’re featured in pieces, and their focus is there, and their drive is there, and they’ve completely grown in just a couple of weeks.”
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. “There’s a lot of new ways to solve problems,” said 13-year-old Jolisa of Oakland. “Before, I would just go off, and it would be a big old fight. But now I know, other than ignore them because they’re just messing with me, I could just change the subject.”
Most of the campers grudgingly took ballet class, and in interviews they consistently complained about having to point their toes. But their comedic ballet, “Alley Ensemble,” 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 “Chosen Voices,” 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 (Liberté) and Senegal (Mandiani) while the band pounded furiously behind them.
It’s easy to think that kids today are only into hip-hop…but I’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 AileyCamp’s African dance teacher. The kids call her Mama.
Twelve-year-old Toni of Oakland summed up her impact: “Mama is nice; she tells you straightforward, she tells you the truth. She tells you don’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 we’re bad she tells us we should be grateful. Like if we’re talking too much, or we’re not paying attention.”
It’s a different kind of learning for lots of the campers—consistent rules meant to strengthen their wings rather than clip them. “They’re constantly being told what they can and can’t do, and what their limits are,” Najee-Ullah continued. “And seeing that lightbulb go off when they realize that they can exceed the limits that people have set for them, that’s why I do it. That healing that they get, and that look on their face, that’s all I need.”
After the African showstopper, the Ailey-tribute final was practically an afterthought, but quite a nice one. Three girls reinterpreted Judith Jamison’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 it’s really about being, and becoming, and expressing yourself. And learning to be a member of a community. McCauley told the kids, “’We all stand on the shoulders of someone else.’ That got a laugh. I said, ‘You might think it’s funny, but it’s not. If people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King did not come and do certain things, where would we be?’ And by we, I mean all of us. It goes across the board to anyone who’s done something for the human race. Where would we be?”
AileyCamp can accommodate up to 80 students, but budget constraints limited this year’s camp to 50. If you or your company would like to support the program, please contact Cal Performances at firstname.lastname@example.org.