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

 

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Lani Corson. Photo by Royce Burgess, courtesy of Corson

Aerial work is growing in popularity in the dance world these days. Don't believe us? Check out this Dance Magazine article! If you're a studio owner who didn't grow up with aerial training (let's face it, how many of us really did?), then you may be feeling a little apprehensive about what to look for when bringing on a new aerialist faculty member. You know exactly what you want from your ballet teachers, your jazz teachers, your tap teachers, heck—even your tumbling teachers! Aerial, however, is a whole other ballgame.

To help you feel confident you're bringing in a teacher who is safe for your dancers, we sat down with Lani Corson, NYC aerialist, circus performer, adjunct professor at Pace University and teacher at Aerial Arts NYC, to get the inside scoop on exactly what you should be looking for.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Unsplash

Is dance a sport? Should it be in the Olympics? They're complicated questions that tend to spark heated debate. But many dance fans will be excited to hear that breaking (please don't call it breakdancing) has been provisionally added to the program for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox