Understanding Through Dance

For Boston teens, dance classes and a performance encourage unity among diverse ethnic groups

DRESSED in colored T-shirts, black sweat pants, and sneakers, a group of noisy teenagers chatter excitedly backstage as they wait for their first full rehearsal to begin. While they listen to their instructor bark out last-minute instructions, they put on finishing touches of makeup, lace up their shoes, and scramble to their places.

These kids are ready to dance.

The star performers are 115 students from four different Boston high schools. In this frenzied atmosphere backstage at Northeastern University's Blackman Auditorium, it's easy to see how eager these young performers are to strut their stuff. The show, called "Bright Beginnings," was performed in June as their first performance together.

But it's no ordinary high-school performance. Besides putting on an entertaining show, these kids are working together to promote multiculturalism and racial harmony. That's the idea behind "New Friends Through Dance" a pilot project created by co-directors Margie Topf and Keith Taylor of MJT Dance Company here.

"The thing that's so beautiful about this project is that not one kid that wanted to join was excluded. It was open for a first come, first served basis.... They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors," says Ms. Topf, an animated woman who wears her hair in a long, cheerleader-style ponytail.

The performance, which includes jazz and modern dance, brings together a group of students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. "Bright Beginnings" dancers include a mix of 9th through 12th graders that includes regular education, special needs, and bilingual students.

"I was particularly impressed [with the show]," said Christopher Lane, headmaster of Dorchester High School, one of four schools represented in the performance. "Even though some of the dancers were not exactly physically coordinated, ... every one of them actively participated. It was clear it was not centered on a leading dancer and everyone else was sort of stage props."

Besides the thrill of putting on a performance, the kids say they like working together and making new friends.

"It's something extra to do," says Margaret Walsh, a freshman from Dorchester High. "We get to know a lot more people instead of just the people inside our own schools. And we work together as a team."

The show is also the culmination of new dance courses, created by MJT, in three of the four high schools this year. Previously, none of the three city schools offered dance elective courses.

Charon Dias, a sophomore from Brighton High school, admits she first enrolled in the Tuesday dance class at her school, "mostly to get out of class at first, just to not have to take gym. But now, it's like every Tuesday, I'm definitely in school for the routine."

Program choreographers tried to make the show itself as multicultural and wide-ranging as possible. The opening and finale pieces are performed by the entire group. Four groups of students take up the stage and aisles of the auditorium. Each group represents a school and has its own T-shirt color. The dance pieces pull together a combination of jazz and street dancing, known as hip-hop.

Three dances, done in costumes, were performed by students of the All City Dance Company, an advanced group chosen by audition.

One of the All City pieces, called "In Search of," was created to show people working together and supporting one another, says choreographer Fernadina Chan. The piece featured dancers holding hands and running on and off the stage. At other times they fell over one another while others supported them.

One piece, called "Island Feeling" with music by Bob Marley, evokes a Caribbean flavor. Dancers were all French-speaking Haitian girls attired in floral-patterned skirts and colorful blouses. Another piece, called "Jaz," with music by Elton John, featured formal jazz-dance techniques.

"We wanted a balanced program. We didn't want the whole program hip-hop. We didn't want the whole program rap," says Topf.

MJT's program, privately funded by corporations and foundations, began last September as a pilot program through its high-school dance courses.

Topf is working frantically to raise the $40,000 needed to fund it for next year.

Besides promoting multiculturalism, the program was also launched to provide arts exposure to students. Cutbacks in Boston schools have hurt arts, theater, and physical-education programs, according to Topf.

The value of dance as a form of education can't be underestimated, she says.

"You can't put into words what the arts do in terms of a student getting self-validation. Many children struggle with cognitive learning. I mean they don't do well in science class. They don't do well in English," says Topf.

But learning through dance can make a difference, especially for inner-city kids troubled by crime, violence, racism, and drugs, says Rebecca Hutton, executive director of the National Dance Association in Reston, Va.

"It's so difficult to deal with those [issues] in a conventional way, especially for kids, say, with a school lesson or book," says Ms. Hutton.

"But when you start to bring kids together in a form that is fun, then the fun overtakes the issue and all of a sudden they learn something, and they enjoy each other. It's a more gentle way to do it than to say, `Here, read a book about it, and this is how you act,' " says Hutton.

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