National youth arts camp lands in Seattle, Tukwila

Nasha Thomas instructs at Public School 528 in New York last summer. This summer, she'll be co-directing and teaching performance arts at Seattle's AileyCamp for the first time. (Photo by Joe Epstein)
Nasha Thomas instructs at Public School I.S. 528 in New York. This summer, she’s co-directing and teaching performance arts at Seattle’s AileyCamp for the first time. (Photo by Joe Epstein)

Using dance as inspiration, AileyCamp will be launched in Seattle for the first time this Monday.

The free, six-week summer program for at-risk middle school students is part of a unique national educational outreach program of the New York’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (AAADT),  a venerable modern dance company founded by Alvin Ailey in 1958, whose repertoire focuses on the African-American experience.

Seattle Theatre Group AileyCamp — a partnership between AAADT and nonprofit performing arts organization Seattle Theatre Group (STG) — will give 66 students, ages 11 through 14, an opportunity to cultivate their self-confidence through artistic expression. Dance, personal development and creative communications classes will be held at the Tukwila Community Center.

AAADT has worked with AileyCamp programs across the nation since the first AileyCamp was established in 1989. Seattle Theatre Group AileyCamp is one of this summer’s 10 AileyCamp locations.

Ailey visited the first AileyCamp in Kansas City, Mo.

“This is the last thing he started,” said Nasha Thomas, AileyCamp’s national director and former principal dancer with AAADT.

AAADT and STG brought AileyCamp to Seattle in honor of AAADT’s longtime production director Calvin Hunt, a Tacoma native and friend of STG who died in 2014.

“[Ailey] was a visionary, having the foresight to start a program like this,” Thomas said. “The success stories just continue to grow and grow.”

AileyCamp is not just about dance, said Thomas.

“It’s an opportunity for them to learn more about themselves, learn more about the arts,” Thomas said. “We are talking to the campers about their dreams, what are their hopes and aspirations, and how can they make these things a reality.”

STG AileyCamp is funded by a combination of corporate and community grants and sponsorships, as well as individual donations said Shawn Roberts, director of STG AileyCamp.

AileyCamp is geared toward “inner-city children who have not had a lot of exposure to the arts,” Thomas said. “Some of them have never been in ballet slippers or dance attire or done a plié.

Final performance at the 2012 AileyCamp in New York. (Photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
Final performance at the 2012 AileyCamp in New York. (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor)

Staff conducted one-on-one interviews with nearly 100 students this spring before they chose this summer’s campers.

“It’s a personal development camp and we’re looking for underserved youth [with] low self-esteem, having difficulty in school,” said Roberts.

This year’s campers hail from the inner city to the reservations, Roberts said. They come from Seattle, Highline, Renton, Tukwila, Tacoma, Burien and SeaTac.

“Our camp is very diverse,” Roberts said. “There are kids of many races.”

AileyCamp wants the students to see that they, too, can become leaders and make positive contributions to their communities, Thomas said. “We really serve as role models for the young people.”

On Monday, the first day of the program, Ken Workman, the leader of the Duwamish tribe will talk to the campers — some of them Native Americans — about his ancestor, Chief Seattle.

STG AileyCamp’s curriculum includes a series of classes and several field trips.

It takes a staff of 16 to runs STG AileyCamp, Roberts said. This includes four dance teachers, a personal development teacher and a creative communications teacher. A guidance counselor will be on staff every day.

Campers will be divided into four groups, and each group will have a group leader who will be with the students all day long.

During the program, students will take four dance classes (ballet, modern, West African and jazz) and a drumming class. Don Bellamy, who was a dancer with AAADT will be STG AileyCamp’s modern dance instructor.

In addition to dance, a personal development class will teach life skills, conflict resolution, how to deal with peer pressure, and health and nutrition.

“There are a lot of things that they’re dealing with as adolescents as their bodies are changing,” Thomas said.

A creative communications class will expose students to creative writing, spoken word, visual art and poetry.

A 2011 AileyCamper with Thomas in a personal development class in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Joe Epstein)
A 2011 AileyCamper with Thomas in a personal development class in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Joe Epstein)

Roberts will be teaching a “techniques of performance and history” course. It covers the history of STG, AAADT and Alvin Ailey; preparing for performance; stage etiquette and theater etiquette, she said.

Field trips are an integral part of the program. The first of four field trips will be to attend “DANCE This,” an annual STG performance featuring more than 100 young dancers. Students will also go hiking and work on team-building in the Snoqualmie area. And they’ll have an intergenerational experience participating in a “Dance for Parkinson’s class,” where Parkinson’s patients are led in movement with music, at Garfield Community Center, Roberts said.

AileyCamp students will give a culminating performance on August 4 at Tukwila’s Foster High School Performance Arts Center, starting at 6 p.m.

“It’s for friends, family and the public — and it’s free,” Roberts said. “It’s an opportunity for all the campers to share their accomplishments and all the hard work from six weeks.”

There are campers that are now teaching, Thomas said. And in a rare, but exciting turn, Solomon Dumas, a former Chicago AileyCamp participant has just joined AAADT, she said.

Ultimately, AileyCamp is about the students, Thomas said: “How they can persevere, and grow up to be happy and productive, and see things a different way. Live their lives a different way.”

“One of the greatest things [is] to see them grow and develop and go onto college and say that AileyCamp really helped to change their lives,” she said.