July 4, 2008

Happy Campers


By Malcolm Venable

The Virginian-Pilot


"Stand up!" the instructor shrieked, yelling like a drill sergeant at a line of cadets. Her troops were wearing leotards and tights.

"Everyone slick their hair back!"

"No gum!"

"No talking!"

"Why do I see strings on shoes out?"

Natasha DeVaughn Rigby, an instructor from New York's Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, was issuing the kind of tough love for which dance teachers are notorious. For two weeks, Rigby had been teaching 48 girls and two boys, ages 10 to 15, modern technique in Camp Rhythm in Setting Expectations (RISE!), a day camp that merged life lessons with dance. On Thursday, she gave them a last inspection before they took the Attucks Theatre stage.

The students showcased their moves to thrilled guests, including parents, showing off all they had learned.

"I was just mesmerized," said Kelly Shaw, after watching her 12- year-old daughter, Sydney, who was voted "most dedicated" in her age group. "I grew up in New York in the theater and dance, so for her to get exposed to that art was great."

The program was two years in the making. That's how long ago Gail Easley, managing director of the Attucks Theatre, started calling the famed Alvin Ailey company to enlist one of its instructors. She recruited children through e-mail and church bulletins. Seeing the camp as equal parts dance technique and social outreach, she also went to Norfolk Public Schools, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Department of Human Services to reach at- risk children.

Beyond dance, students had self-development classes, where they learned about confidence, setting goals and creative writing. Arriving every morning at 9 a.m., they got breakfast, lunch, the classes and three dance sessions. Everything - from their dance tights to the food - was free.

"Isn't that wonderful?" said Ofosuwa Abiola-Tamba, a local instructor who taught African dance.

As the students learned the meanings behind the dances and the drumming, she saw them change.

"Their heads were higher," she said. "Their conversation changed; there was less teasing, and more encouragement. I think they learned things that will stay with them for the rest of their life."

Even the instructors learned, said local ballet teacher Eboni Young. With children of varying levels of skill in each room, she had to learn to keep everybody engaged. And then there was the issue of the 14-year-old boy in ballet shoes.

"The girls had a harder time adjusting to the boys doing ballet than the boys did," she said. "They were like, 'Is he supposed to wear the shoes too?'


"I just felt like I had to work extra hard," said Lake Stovall, the boy in question. He is a rising freshman at Maury High School and attended the camp with his twin sister, Forest. He likes hip- hop dancing and beat-boxing.

"I've never danced like this before," he said. "Now when I 'pop and lock' or 'krump,' I can incorporate this into it."

Just before the show, Rigby had them join hands. "We are so fortunate," she said. "Remember that there are people who are less fortunate than you. When we are dancing, we are giving a gift to the world - that is the beauty of dance. Trust your instincts. Focus. If you make a mistake, what do you do?"

"Fix it!" they yelled.

"And keep going!" she said.

And they walked out, showcasing their moves on stage to a howling audience. At the end, they read poems, did a rap song about making positive choices, and finished with a freestyled romp to Michael McDonald's version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Everyone, it seemed, was beaming.

In the fall, 20 students will be invited back for a residency to continue training. One student will earn a trip to New York next year to see the Alvin Ailey company perform.

Easley said the camp will rise again next summer.

Malcolm Venable, (757) 446-2662, [email protected]

the program

Fifty children, ages 10 to 15, learned modern dance technique at Camp Rhythm in Setting Expectations (RISE!).

Students got meals, classes and dance sessions for free. - online

Watch video of the program at Pilot Online.com.

Originally published by BY MALCOLM VENABLE.

(c) 2008 Virginian - Pilot. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.