Dance eXchange teaching artists Ann-Marie Gover and David Irwin work with children of Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia.

With its bright-orange ceiling, cavernous acoustics and basketball hoops dotting the wall, the basement gym of Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia is an unlikely dance studio. But thanks to BalletX, it becomes just that every Tuesday and Thursday morning when upward of 30 third-graders tiptoe through its industrial-strength doors.

In its third year, the contemporary ballet company’s Dance eXchange program pairs teaching artists with local elementary schools in an inner-city district that is otherwise starved for arts programming. Students receive 13 weeks of instruction culminating in a series of showcase performances at Philadelphia’s Prince Theater.

At the start of class, teaching artist Belle Alvarez requests “a nice Pink Panther theme” from her accompanist. Routine is paramount for these students, many of whom have never danced before, and the familiar tune sets the perfect tone for a quiet entrance.

“The space is not ideal,” says Alvarez, who earned her BFA from Temple University in 2014. “But we use body language as much as we can to avoid losing our voices.” She employs a variety of both visual and audio cues to engage the students. For a jazz square they chant, “Step across, glasses on, glasses off,” while a side-touch elicits, “Check the time, look at your watch.”

Each student wears a name tag and stands on a line taped to the gym floor. When they turn to face the back of the room, they’re greeted by one of Alvarez’s teammates, David Irwin: tall, sporting dreadlocks and ready to take up the charge.

Dance eXchange follows the pedagogy of the National Dance Institute, which was founded in 1976 by New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise. Having grown up in a low-income family, d’Amboise sought to create a curriculum that would inspire and engage all students through dance, regardless of their socioeconomic status, background or physical ability.

Today’s class is no exception. While some of the students have dyed hair and sequined Ugg boots, others wear broken glasses and long-outgrown uniforms. One is being observed by a behavioral specialist. Many of the nearly 200 students enrolled in Dance eXchange are English language learners.

One bilingual student, whose enthusiasm for dance has landed her the coveted spot of line leader in her class’ routine, names Latin music star Romeo Santos as her favorite singer. She follows up with a caveat: “He’s Mexican. You’ve probably never heard of him.”

Skipping to the center of the room, the 8-year-old leads her classmates through the “Motownphilly” routine they’ll be presenting to their parents the following week.

“We get to go to the Prince Theater!” she exclaims. But her excitement fades when she adds that her father might not be able to make it to the performance. “He’s gonna ask his chef if he can take off work, but I don’t know.”

A week later, the Prince is bustling with camera-clutching parents and younger siblings. The performance has been postponed once already due to snow, but when BalletX founder and artistic/executive director Christine Cox steps onstage, she beams with pride. “Our hope and dream is that this night will stay with the students,” Cox tells their parents, “and maybe spur a lifelong interest in dance.”

Albert M. Greenfield Elementary students perform at Prince Theater in Philadelphia.

As the students line up, she explains that this year’s program has used movement to explore the life of Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin. Student submissions for the program’s T-shirt design contest are replete with kites, keys and lightning bolts. Additional musical selections for the program include “Electric Avenue,” “Philadelphia Freedom” and Pharrell Williams’ “Freedom.”

But first it’s time for “William Tell.” One by one, the students run down the aisle, up the steps and straight to center stage, where they perform their very best leap to a steady stream of cheers and applause. It may seem like an accident waiting to happen, but the teaching artist and company are strategically positioned to get everyone safely onstage and to their spots in record time.

After demonstrating their warm-up sequence, jazz squares and all, each class performs its routine. There are no sequins. No tutus. Instead, it’s the third- and fourth-graders who light up the stage.

“I love seeing the kids become really proud of themselves,” Alvarez says. “They’ll tell me, ‘I didn’t think I could dance, but now I can.’”

When “Motownphilly” finishes, the 8-year-old line leader breaks ranks and runs down the aisle. She throws her arms around a man sitting in the middle of the theater: Her father has made it to the show after all. DT

Kat Richter is a writer, dancer and professor of anthropology. She lives in Philadelphia.

Photos by Audrey Simmons, courtesy of BalletX

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