AileyCamp Chicago celebrated its 10-year anniversary this summer. The innovative, 6-week dance and youth development program for inner city students is made possible each year through a partnership amongst Urban Gateways, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools. This summer, 80 Chicago students ages 11 to 14 participated; and anyone who was present for the camp’s culminating dance performance on Wednesday, August 12 knows the spectacular results.
The show took place in the auditorium of Whitney Young High School. The campers’ families and friends showed up in droves; people were lining the walls and sitting in the aisles by the time the performance began. The moment the curtain came up and the campers’ sweeping smiles and professional costumes came into view, it was clear that it would be a show to remember, even before they took a step.
“11 to 14 is such a transitional stage. We want to help them through that transition. We are developing the individual camper,” said AileyCamp Chicago Director Lisa Willingham. To that end, campers not only participate in daily technique classes in ballet, modern dance, jazz, and tap, but they also attend personal development and creative communications classes focused on goal setting, nutrition, conflict/resolution, self-image and more.
The camp leaders emphasize that dance is a way to bring it all together, a way for the students to practice their confidence and communication by engaging with an audience.
“Dance is meant to challenge the campers in their sense of self. We challenge young people to be their best in whatever endeavor they choose,” said Willingham.
Although dance is a means to an end in this case, it can’t go unsaid that the camp turns out some technically superb young dancers. According to Willingham, 8 Ailey campers have been accepted to the new Chicago High School for the Performing Arts.
No surprise based on the August 12 show, which started with a Michael Jackson tribute – jazzy, funky numbers with colorful lighting, even more colorful costumes, and plenty of whooping from the enthusiastic audience of parents and supporters. Then the hour-and-a-half-long show moved into an artful jumble of ballet, contemporary dance, jazz, hip-hop, and everything in between, interspersed with quick poetry recitations and skits about communication and peer pressure, all performed by the campers. A highlight was the African dance piece; the campers wore African costumes and danced to an accompanying percussion group. The camp brought in a dancer from West Africa especially for this purpose.
Willingham also called former campers to the stage between dance numbers and asked them to say a few words about their experiences. Former camper Derek said of the program, “At first I didn’t want to do it because it seemed hard. But then I found out I could do a lot of things that I didn’t realize before.”
“Your heart. Your heart’s really in it,” 13-year-old Nicole said. Then, indicating Willingham, “this woman really inspired me. Now I dance in my neighborhood.” What was most striking about the performance, beyond the wide range of dance types and styles, was the grace and professionalism achieved by many of the students, whose obvious elation during the show contributed to a festive and happy atmosphere.
And in the final moments, after the campers marched out chanting “Ailey, Ailey” over and over in a musical conclusion, they shouted in unison a line that sums up the purpose of the AileyCamp: “I will not use the word ‘can’t’ to define my possibilities.”