With UNCG student volunteers assisting with free dance instruction for children, Dancers Connect is not only going strong — it's also spinning off in new directions
Emmanuel Malette, a sophomore dance major, smiles as he watches the dancers rehearse this bright spring morning.
They waft across the sunlight-infused studio inside the Health and Human Performance (HHP) Building, swirling like near-weightless petals in the wind. One of the youngest dancers, 9-year-old Kinu Dailey, rolls across the hardwood floor without hesitation, her shiny black mane bundled securely into a ponytail.
“When she first started dancing, she was in this little bubble,” Emmanuel says, shaking his head in amazement as he watches her. “She has come a long way.”
For Emmanuel, watching Kinu and the other dancers he has coached blossom is its own reward. “That means a lot,” he says. “I love it.”
Mila Parrish, a UNCG dance professor, started the Dancers Connect program last year as a way to provide free, quality dance instruction to local kids on Saturdays. Parrish recruited students through the Guilford County Schools and enlisted UNCG dance students like Emmanuel to help with instruction. Emmanuel and the other UNCG students work under the wing of paid professional dance instructors.
Dancers Connect — designed as an alternative to private dance instruction that can cost a competitive dancer $5,000 a year or more — began with 26 dancers, ages 7-11. A year later, the program has grown to include 80 dancers from elementary through high school.
Over the past year, UNCG students invested 1,500 volunteer hours in Dancers Connect. And two dance performance groups have spun off from the program.
Emmanuel and six other UNCG students now perform as the iDance Company. Meanwhile instructors hand-picked 10 younger dancers, elementary and middle schoolers, to perform as iDancers Connect.
iDancers Connect is still in the preparation stage, working on choreography and other elements. They plan to perform on campus, in schools and in senior centers starting in the fall.
Kinu is part of this group, the group Emmanuel is quietly observing from the doorway. Dependent for now on two walls of mirrors to help them visualize their movements, they take cues from Parrish.
“Leave a mark in space with your dancing,” she tells them. “Even bigger. Take up as much space as there is. Soaring.”
Kelly Craig, a senior dance student at UNCG, dances with the group, setting the pace and offering direction. For Kelly, today’s session is bittersweet. She doesn’t have much time left to work with Dancers Connect.
“They are just so industrious and so into learning and exploring dance,” she says, casting a moist-eyed glance at the group. “Their attitudes are great. They are ready to work. I know it sounds cliché, but they have taught me as much as I’ve taught them.”
Kelly says inspiring young dancers like Kinu is what Dancers Connect is all about. “You can just tell she’s going to do something with it, and that’s good to see.”
Creating the dance
While this morning’s session centers mostly on original choreography to the scat-jazz ditty “Trashin’ the Camp” from Disney’s “Tarzan,” iDancers Connect will soon start work on a dance they will perform as part of UNCG’s “The Globe and the Cosmos” cross-disciplinary project.
The dancers will create a special performance centered on space, the solar system and navigation, Parrish says. This focus on the creative aspect of dance is what sets this program apart.
“They get the freedom to create movement and they get to create it with a partner or a group,” says Lauren Parker, a junior dance education major who assists with the middle school classes. “And they get to share their creations, their art, with other students their age. They are going to grow up to be arts advocates, even if they don’t work in the arts. I’m in love with it.”
Lauren is waiting in the HHP lobby, waiting for her class to start. As she waits, she chats with Hannah Nichols, a freshman dance major. Hannah, like Emmanuel, is part of the university’s iDance Company and also works with the youngsters.
“It’s so cool to see what they come up with,” Hannah says of the younger dancers. “They have a crazy perspective on things that we could never come up with.”
Lauren nods with enthusiasm. “It blows my mind! I would never think of some of the things they do. It’s so awesome.”
Hannah and the other iDance Company dancers draw on the energy they absorb from the kids. The iDance Company, like almost every other aspect of Dancers Connect, sprang up spontaneously.
The group was riding home from a performance in a van, Emmanuel says. “We were talking about how we performed together a lot, and someone suggested we form a company. It began as sort of a joke but Mila took it seriously. It’s amazing.”
The company formed last fall. They visit schools, senior centers and other venues, teaching audiences about creating dance and choreography before performances.
The iDance Company recently performed choreographer Donald McKayles’ challenging “Rainbow Etude” in Aycock Auditorium. In preparation, dancers endured three days of eight-hour rehearsals.
“Everybody had to go to a dark place within themselves,” Emmanuel says. “It was like a community thing; we all came together. It was like we were all breathing one breath. We were all pushing each other to get to that place.”
The dance continues
In the studio, the iDancers Connect company have pushed each other too. Kinu and her dance partner, 9-year-old Ella Teachout, are tired but smiling as they come out of their session.
“I like having fun with the dancers and making new friends,” says Kinu, who would like to dance professionally one day. “The hardest part is getting all the counts and getting the movements.”
For Ella, whose older sister is also in iDancers Connect, spacing is the challenge. “Me and my sister had to go over it 25 times at home to get it right.”
Kelly looks on the dancers, especially the tiny ones like Ella and Kinu, as the future of dance, whether or not they pursue dance as a career.
“Someone had a role in shaping me, and now I’m in the role of shaping them. We need more advocates for the arts. We need more people in the dance world.”
Reposted from the summer 2014 UNCG Magazine
By Michelle Hines, Staff Writer, University Relations
Photography by David Wilson, Assistant Photography Editor