For many, the teenage years are a time when you start to realize the world isn’t fair, and life can be tough. Facing issues like income inequality, racism, and violence, can be overwhelming. One unique program in New Orleans is helping students engage with tough social issues through dance.
Dance instructor Laura Stein is leading a group of about 30 high school students through their warm-up at Dancing Grounds, a studio Stein founded in the Ninth Ward in 2012. Her students come from all over the city. Some have been doing plies and releves since they were kids. Others, like 15-year-old Alexcia Morgan, learned in less formal settings.
"I started out dancing in the living room, just staying to myself," Morgan explained. "Then I came to the studio, and then people started watching me."
But the students aren't just here to dance - they’re “dancing for social change." It’s a program where students talk about issues that affect their lives, like poverty, gun violence and gentrification, and turn them into dance.
Today, guest speaker and architect Bryan Lee is talking about healthy neighborhoods.The students gather around Lee in the center of the studio, where Lee dumps out a suitcase full of wooden blocks.
Using blocks, students design their ideal neighborhood, based on their priorities: food, education and healthcare. They’ll use the conversation as inspiration for a dance.
Stein says it’s a pretty unusual way to run a dance studio.
"Dance pedagogy is traditionally very top-down," she says. "So you have a teacher who is counting off '5, 6, 7, 8,' and you have to follow everything they’re doing. So this program is really trying to flip that on its head, and say 'what do you all want to create?'"
Later, five student dancers perform a piece for the class, inspired by a discussion from a few weeks ago. The boys swirl into a circle, then four of them swing their arms up into the shape of a gun pointed at De’Von Favorite who drops to his knees, and arches backwards. Necai Byrd, 16, explains the choreography is based on recent traumatic experiences.
"My work was personally was over a heartbreak that I had recently, De’von was over a girl that got shot in the face not too far from his house, Cobi was about him getting into a car wreck, and Elijah was about him being in poverty," he says.
Like most teenagers, these dancers have a lot of feelings - about their personal lives, the angst of being human. Sixteen-year-old Yasmin Hawthorne tries to put it into words.
"They’re not negative, but they’re not that great either - those kind of feelings," she says.
Dancing gives the students a healthy way to process all of that. "No matter what I'm going through at home, I come here and I feel better," Hawthorne says.
After the warm-up, the students get to work on preparing for an upcoming performance. They start in one large flock, and slowly spread out into new formation, where they perform a synchronized routine of steps and slides and spins.
The students are still working out the end of the dance, but they know they want to come back together into a flock at the end. Sixteen-year-old Akelah Sherman explains what she wants the dance to show.
"As a community we should all be able to come together, no matter where we come from - even different spots in the room - and we can come together, and be together, and have fun," she says.
This weekend, the students will take the conversation outside the classroom with a public performance.
Dance for Social Change will perform Saturday, October 13 at the Civic Theater.
Support for WWNO’s education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.