in partnership
Photo Courtesy: Christopher Nelson

STG's AileyCamp is About Much More Than Just Dance

They arrive by bus from different neighborhoods, different communities, different circumstances. But for six weeks each summer - they become one.

Each day at the Seattle Theatre Group's AileyCamp begins the same way, with daily affirmations. A set of guiding principals. A way for campers to center themselves before the real work begins. Before they dance.

AileyCamp is a personal development and dance camp for middle schoolers. It's a partnership between STG and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the premier dance companies in the world.

"It teaches important life skills, decision making, critical thinking skills," said Camp Director Shawn Roberts. "Those skills all of us need to know, but especially at the middle school age (when) they're transitioning from being a child into adulthood."

For the campers, everything at camp is free. Transportation, meals, attire, classes, all of it, paid for through grants and sponsorships.

"You can provide scholarships, but the scholarship doesn't help if the child cannot get here and if they don't have nutritious and wholesome food to eat," Roberts explained.

Roberts interviewed each child who applied. Yes, all 65 young people were selected to be a part of the camp, but none were chosen solely based on his or her dance ability.

"What we're looking for are risk factors," said Roberts. "How is this child's self esteem? How are they doing at home? How are they doing in school? What is their general feeling about life? And so we're looking for those risk factors and those are the kids who are in our camp."

For some campers this is their first formal dance training. Others have experience, like 13-year-old Quentin Berry, who started out in hip-hop and breakdancing.

"He's a big teddy bear. He loves dancing. He has since he was a baby," said Mhkeeba Pate, Quentin's mom. "I mean two years, three years old, he was flipping around in our living room and teaching himself how to breakdance. I don't even know what he was exposed to to see it."

"It just makes me feel happy because I'm just expressing myself through movement and people like what I do," added Berry.

This is his second summer at AileyCamp. Here he's pushed outside his comfort zone, training in dance styles from modern to ballet.

"His strength in his movement. His strength in his character and his perseverance is what really stands out for me. He just keeps trying over and over again and fighting for it each movement," said Roberts.

"I've grown, well definitely in maturity...And I guess I've grown as a person through PD and other stuff like that because that's pretty much what it's all about," explained Quentin.

PD is personal development, the core component of AileyCamp.

"We discuss a number of topics. Self esteem, conflict resolution, bullying. Things they experience in their everyday life, and we just help them develop the skills to handle them appropriately and to be successful," said Carrie Stuart, AileyCamp's personal development instructor.

PD sessions incorporate aspects of dance and visual arts, but at the core they're really about communication and connection.

"Many times when our kids come their body language and their attitude is folded in I call it. And as they go though these six weeks of camp they unfold more and more and more to be who they are, their truth in life," said Roberts.

AileyCamp culminates with a final performance at the Paramount Theatre. Quentin performs in four pieces. It's an emotional experience for everyone involved.

"It is life-altering," explained Roberts. "You cannot help but be moved by the courage and the growth of each and every camper. It's that triumph. They've made it through the internal and external challenges to that moment where it's like 'yes, we did it'."

"(I'm definitely going to feel) happiness, but also sadness because I won't see my friends for I don't know how long. I won't see them five days out of the week anymore," said Quentin. "I didn't know almost all of them before this...and we pretty much become like a mini-family."

This family may be going its separate way, but they will always be connected. Bonded together by a shared experience. An experience that will continue to shape their lives long after the curtain has closed and the stage lights have faded to black.