AileyCamp helps kids ascend to higher levels

Summer program emphasizes personal development to teach life lessons

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been dazzling audiences around the world since 1958, receiving the Kennedy Center Honor for its Lifetime Contribution to American Culture in 1988.

Realizing founder Alvin Ailey’s conviction that “dance is for everybody,” the nearly 50-year-old organization doesn’t use the medium solely to entertain. Through Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation’s Arts in Education & Community Programs, the nonprofit teaches youth teamwork, self-discipline, communication skills and a respect for themselves and others.

Founded Kansas, Mo., in 1989, AileyCamp was the last program Alvin Ailey created before he died later that year. Since then, the six-week, project-based, summer program has served an estimated 14,910 11- to 14-year-old students with social, domestic and academic challenges and has expanded to 10 cities around the country.

In Nov. 2016, Michelle Obama presented AileyCamp with the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the highest honor for creative, out-of-school youth development programs. However, this arts day camp is not talent-based.

Nasha Thomas instructing West African dance class in Manhattan, part of the AileyDance Kids program.
Photograph by Joe Epstein
Nasha Thomas instructing West African dance class in Manhattan, part of the AileyDance Kids program.

“It is specifically for inner-city youth whose families don’t have the resources to send them to other summer camps,” says Nasha Thomas, national director of AileyCamp and spokesperson and master teacher for arts and education and community programs. “AileyCamp is for children who don’t have access to the arts, children who have challenges at school, challenges in their home life, are bullies, have challenges working with others, are followers and might be susceptible to peer pressure. That’s almost all of our children now with social media. It’s very difficult for them to navigate and make decisions about ‘what’s right for me.’”

2017 AileyCamp Schedule

● Atlanta, Ga.: June 1 – July 7
● Baltimore, Md.: June 20 – July 15
● Berkeley/Oakland, Calif.: June 26 – Aug. 4
● Chicago, Ill.: July 3 – Aug. 11
● Kansas City, Mo.: June 5 – July 13
● Kansas City, Kan.: June 5 – July 13
● Miami, Fla.: June 26 – Aug. 5
● New York, N.Y.: July 5 – Aug. 11
● Newark, N.J.: July 5 – Aug. 11
● Seattle, Wash.: June 27 – Aug. 5

This type of programming can be crucial to closing education gaps. By sixth grade, students in middle-income families have received more than 4,000 hours of afterschool and summer learning than students in low-income families, according to the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. The lower-income students also tend to lose more than two months of reading skills when not engaged during the summer.

AileyCamp participants receive breakfast, lunch and daily dance classes — along with dance attire, dance shoes and a dance bag — as well as other creative communication instruction, such as spoken word, creative writing, visual arts, percussion or theater classes. With 10 free programs running around the country, each with about 100 campers, the creative courses vary from city to city.

Learning more than the arts

From day one, campers are working toward and end-of-season presentation that highlights everything they learned. One thing they learn is that the arts require discipline, focus, flexibility and acceptance. “There are differences in all of the arts — how you can hear music or tell a story,” Thomas says. “It’s about getting along with others and being a team player. It’s about trying things in life that are difficult.” After the presentation, she says students feel a sense of pride in their accomplishments, especially knowing getting to that point wasn’t easy.

Despite the deep, creative engagement opportunities, Thomas says the core, foundation and focus of the camp is personal development.

"We’re looking to build leaders."

Nasha Thomas, national director of AileyCamp

AileyCamp essentially is about boosting self-esteem and giving children the life skills to resolve conflicts, and to resolve them without fighting and cursing.

“How to deal with peer pressure and self-esteem. How to solve problems with these skills and tools to think on your own. How to take care of your body — health and nutrition, sexual responsibility, drugs and alcohol. A lot of them don’t have support from family, and it’s important for them to be able to do these things for themselves and with the support of role models at AileyCamp. We’re looking to build leaders.”

Thomas says AileyCamp provides kids with an opportunity to talk with their peers in a guided discussion about the challenges in their lives so they can hear and get good advice, rather than talking about it just amongst themselves or not talking about the challenges at all. “It’s a platform for them to express themselves and give them a voice.”

AileyCamp, Newark, NJ
Photograph by Nan Melville
Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Recuerdos final performance.

The program also provides individualized attention. Thomas says, oftentimes, the children have a lot of other siblings and don’t have anything of their own. “This is where they are clearly the important thing. I think that’s something that is needed for our young people to feel they are worth something, they are valid, and they are cared for.”

Heather Ikemire, chief program officer for the National Guild for Community Arts Education in New York, says it’s important to create a psychological space for young people to survive. She says, “These opportunities for mentorships, social engagement and feelings of connectedness and belonging help them gain skills for college and various career pathways.”

In partnership with The Children’s Aid Society, New York’s AileyCamp recently started an alumni association where former campers come back as staff.

Paolina Lu now works for The Ailey School / Ailey Arts in Education & Community Programs public relations. She attended Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp in 2001, the summer she turned 14, and still thinks about the AileyCamp Daily Affirmations: “I will not use the word ‘can't’ to define my possibilities.”

“AileyCamp instilled in me the importance of moving through life with confidence and compassion, and taking personal responsibility for building the future that you want to see,” says Lu.

In addition to enriching each youth’s personal development, Thomas says they teach civic-mindedness through community service, such as cleaning up parks and going to senior housing.

“Everybody wants to give back, and it feels good to do that,” says Denise Montgomery , director of Creative Youth Development National Initiative and founder of CultureThrive consulting. “If you’re a low-income young person, you may not otherwise get that opportunity.”

Kids also have fun outside of the classroom with field trips — bowling, the beach, amusement parks — outings their schools wouldn’t normally take or things they could easily do on their own.

“We tell the young people you can’t get anything out of life if you don’t put anything into it,” Thomas says. “Young people are viewed as being ignorant and uninformed just because of their age, and that’s not true. Everyone wants to be heard and we give them a platform to express themselves. We grow by our opinions. It’s important for young people to be listened to and for others to ear how they feel about things. This is my 18th year as national director and I love working with and inspiring youth, but they inspire me more every day.”

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Alvin Ailey
Dance Theater
2017 U.S. Tour

● March 22-26: Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, Chicago
● March 28: Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, H-E-B Performance Hall, San Antonio
● April 1: Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas
● April 18: Wharton Center for the Performing Arts, East Lansing, Mich.
● April 21-23: Detroit Opera House, Detroit
● April 25: Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, UMASS, Amherst, Ma.
● April 27-30: Boch Center Wang Theatre, Boston
● May 12-14: New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark
● June 14-18: The David H. Koch Theater, New York


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