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VOL. 127 | NO. 62 | Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pas de Deux

Ballet Memphis program empowers city’s underserved youth

By Aisling Maki

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Ballet Memphis is using the city’s community centers as a vehicle to expose children to the arts while empowering them to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Cecily Khuner and Ballet Memphis dancers perform Pork Songs as part of a Ballet Memphis community initiative called Connections:Kids at Hickory Hill Community Center. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Connections: Kids is an outreach program that enables youth to learn creative movement from professional dancers in their community who motivate them to think critically and take charge of their health.

The program was created about 18 months ago when the company was applying for a grant from The Junior League of Memphis.

“They were looking for something new and innovative,” said Karl Condon, Ballet Memphis assistant artistic director. “We decided to create a new project and try to focus on childhood obesity … talking about lifestyle changes and good choices.”

To design the program, Ballet Memphis dancers and staff met with experts like Dr. Marion Hare, associate professor of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, to learn effective communication techniques for delivering information about childhood obesity and healthy life habits to children.

“We don’t even use the words ‘childhood obesity’ in our dialogue,” Condon said. “We have met with several different nutritionists to ask about the best way to carry this message to these children. They told us to pick two or three bullet points; you don’t want to overwhelm or insult them, and you don’t want them to feel bad.”

The performances are designed to be delivered through community centers in underserved neighborhoods, which were chosen because unlike the captive audience of a classroom setting, the centers would attract children who were there by choice, making it easier to gauge the program’s success.

Condon approached Joseph Lee III, deputy director of Parks & Neighborhoods, Recreation Services at the city of Memphis, to get the program into the centers.

Lee said the program is a perfect fit with the department’s three core areas of focus: health, fitness and wellness; educational and character development; and cultural arts and expressions.

Karl Kondon, associate artistic director of Ballet Memphis, teaches choreography to Chelby Price and Yarnita Moore as part of a Ballet Memphis community initiative called Connections:Kids at Hickory Hill Community Center.


(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“The additional caveat that Ballet Memphis wanted to focus on was obesity, as well as introducing the arts and maybe exciting youth through the arts for some positive results in those youngsters,” Lee said. “I thought that was a real good opportunity to share and bring Ballet Memphis to the various community centers. It’s just a great collaborative program.”

The Junior League grant enabled Ballet Memphis to purchase items such as a portable floor, wireless speakers, a 14-foot portable movie screen and a projector.

In addition to funding, The Junior League provided volunteers to help set up at the community centers and offer feedback on performances.

The first sessions took place in the fall and focused on commercials. Condon assembled a montage of television advertisements, designing dances around them to demonstrate how media, including celebrity endorsements, impact the choices kids make.

The performance included interactive dialogue and dancing, teaching children choreography and the value of exercise and caring for your body.

In one exercise, a facilitator has a volunteer scoop sugar into a bag to demonstrate the amount of sugar in a 16-ounce bottle of cola, which contains the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar.

“Immediately we make an impact and try to say, ‘Instead of reaching for a cola, try water instead,’” Condon said. “Not that we never want you to have a cola again in your life, but you don’t need two or three a day. It gets their attention, they’re immediately involved.”

So far, children at nine community centers – McFarland, Gaisman, Orange Mound, Whitehaven, Hickory Hill, Pine Hill, Lester, Douglas and Ed Rice – as well as one Boys & Girls Club have participated in the program.

Connections: Kids is now in the midst of its spring session, which focused on how social media, delivered through devices such as smartphones and tablets, influences the choices of children.

Connections: Kids uses Ballet Memphis’ youngest and newest dancers – trainees, apprentices and first-year company members. Condon said the children connect with the younger dancers, who can serve as role models, while the dancers gain valuable experience.

“They’re getting a chance to dance quality choreography repeatedly, and you become a better dancer when you do good stuff over and over again,” Condon said. “So we also have our dancers in mind when we try to program things like this to better them and to give them a great experience. They’re getting so much out of interacting with the kids and making that impact.”

Dancer Carly Wheaton wrote on the Ballet Memphis blog: “Before I moved here I knew that Ballet Memphis made a solid effort to connect with the community, but I could never imagine the reward it would give me once I joined the effort. … Having never danced at a community center for such a young audience, I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, once the bright-eyed elementary students walked in, their positive energy was contagious.”

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