Taking the Initiative

 

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

 

Teachers Trending
Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.