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

 

News
Getty Images

Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

Keep reading... Show less
Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

Christy Funsch's teaching career has taken her from New York City to the Bay Area to Portugal, with a stint in a punk band in between. But this fall—fresh off a Fulbright in Portugal at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, School of Dance (ESD), teaching and researching empathetic embodiment through somatic dance training—Funsch's teaching has taken her to an entirely new location: Zoom. A visiting professor at Slippery Rock University for the 2020–21 academic year, Funsch is adapting her eclectic, boundary-pushing approach to her virtual classes.

Originally from central New York State, Funsch spent 20 years performing in the Bay Area, where she also started her own company, Funsch Dance Experience. "My choreographic work from that time is in the dance-theater experiential, fantasy realm of performance," she says. "I also started blending genres and a lot of urban styles found their way into my choreography."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Courtesy Meg Brooker

As the presidential election approaches, it's a particularly meaningful time to remember that we are celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, when women earned the right to vote after a decades-long battle.

Movement was more than a metaphor for the fight for women's suffrage—dancers played a real role, most notably Florence Fleming Noyes, who performed her riveting solo Dance of Freedom in 1914 to embody the struggle for women's rights.

This fall, Middle Tennessee State University director of dance Meg Brooker is reconstructing Dance of Freedom on 11 of her students. A Noyes Rhythm teacher and an Isadora Duncan scholar, Brooker is passionate about bringing historic dance practices into a contemporary context.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.