Jennifer Lesniak and her office mates had been following news of the Detroit Public Schools’ financial woes for several years. This spring, when the district announced plans to close dozens of schools, they decided they’d heard enough. “Detroit Public Schools have been struggling for the past four or five years, and they’ve killed almost all of the arts programs,” Lesniak says. “These kids don’t have anything. So we said, ‘We have to do something. It’s not enough just to complain about it.’”

The group didn’t waste any time—they created Detroit Youth Initiative, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide free classes in visual and performing arts, virtually overnight. Some children, they reasoned, would be able to switch to suburban or charter schools to get a more well-rounded education, while others have the means to pay for extracurricular activities. But what about the kids who don’t? It’s these students that DYI aims to keep from falling through the cracks.

“In one night, we picked our name, picked our board and wrote up our papers to file with the state of Michigan.” While Lesniak, 35, doesn’t have an arts background (she’s in marketing and advertising), her fellow board members—Maria Labellarte, 21, Elaine Lok, 26, Courtney McClenahan, 26, and Jasmine Parks, 20—all have experience in dance or visual art. The group launched a successful pilot program in April, and is now gearing up to have a full menu of after-school arts programs in place this fall for up to 150 students.

Starting with Dance  

The success of DYI depends heavily on community support. The plan is to recruit local art and dance studios that will agree to offer tuition-free classes to youngsters in the program. DYI found its first community partner in Sheryl Einhardt, owner of Dance Expressions Dance Studio in St. Clair Shores. “We’re planning on offering all kinds of arts disciplines, but right now it’s dance because that’s the easiest one to start with—it’s not going to be difficult to add one or two more kids to a class,” Lesniak explains. “With an art studio, it’s a little bit different.” 

The pilot program ran at Einhardt’s studio, where four young dancers were discreetly integrated into her classes. “We’re not doing a special class for these kids,” Lesniak says, explaining that it’s important that the students not feel singled out as “needy.” “The other parents, the other kids—nobody knows their financial situation.”

When it comes to finding children to participate in the program, DYI is counting on the recommendations of teachers and parents. “We want the kids who are dragging their parents to dance class,” Lesniak says, “not the other way around.”


Tracy Radu’s 8-year-old daughter, Felicia, fit the bill. Felicia had taken dance classes when she was younger, but financial difficulties left the family unable to pay for lessons. “She had been asking me for a couple of years, ‘When do you think I’ll be able to go back?’” Radu says. “Even if we were able to swing the dance classes, then they have the recital, and the costumes are so expensive. If I was to put her in in the beginning of the year, how do I tell her, ‘Well, now you can’t be in the recital.’?” 

Radu e-mailed Lesniak after reading about DYI on the internet. “Within a day or so, she told me they had some openings, and they signed Felicia up,” Radu recalls. Felicia took a tap class as part of the pilot program at Dance Expressions, and did so well that Einhardt invited her to perform in the recital. “I talked to Jennifer, and she said that DYI would take care of her costume,” Radu says. “That was a nice surprise. I think it’s absolutely wonderful what she’s doing. It was really a blessing to us.” As of the summer, Felicia was planning to continue taking classes in the fall. 

A Group Effort

DYI has been spending the summer working to bring more community partners on board. The Detroit Pistons Dance Team, Automotion, is helping to round up dance studios to offer classes, and the local Parks and Recreation Department agreed to loan DYI space for student orientations. At this time, DYI doesn’t have a dedicated office space (though the board members put in full- and part-time hours at DYI, they all maintain regular full-time jobs), so the only real operating expense is supplying shoes and dancewear for the students. To help defray these costs, DYI is calling on local dance stores for support.  

They’ve even received donations from beyond the Detroit community. A box of custom-made leotards arrived from Alicia Jackson Dancewear, in Maryland. And Ashley Reese, the 15-year-old founder of DanceXchange, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that collects and distributes dance gear to young dancers in need, has formed a partnership with DYI to supply dancewear, shoes and other equipment on an ongoing basis. “They don’t have any ties to Detroit,” Lesniak says. “They just wanted to help.” 

The members of DYI are hoping to keep up the positive response. “People are excited, and they want to support us,” says McClenahan, one of the board members. “We just want to keep the momentum going.” DT

 

William Whitener held countless auditions when he directed The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and he himself learned from legendary choreographers Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse about what it takes to make it on Broadway. Now he coaches ballet students on these skills when he guest teaches around the country. "Auditions require a certain amount of strategy," says Whitener. He holds mock auditions and discusses all aspects of the process—registration, class and even how to make a professional exit. "Practicing for this kind of performance works better than telling dancers what they should do," he says. "They need to actually do it."

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