On Monday, October 15th, we took two classes from P.S. 76 in Harlem to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Joan Weill Center for Dance on 55th Street at 9th Avenue. The students have been reading Alvin Ailey (1995), a children’s biography of the visionary dancer and choreographer written by Andrea Pinkney and illustrated by her husband, Brian Pinkney.
Needless to say, the students were hugely impressed by the quality of the facilities. “Ailey,” as the center is known for short, is a recently built eight story dance school with twelve enormous studios, a library, administrative offices, student lounges, and a fully-functioning theater. There are full-time college-aged students, part time High School students, and a professional dance company who use the studios, which are also available for classes offered to local adults.
Each of our classes received a tour from our dynamic and thorough tour guide, “Super Sam.” The kids got to look in on numerous classes of all different dance styles and skill levels. The students in Ms. Burgess’ class even got to sit in on the first part of a class, watching the thirty or so dancers from the front of the room. When one of the teachers whose class we looked in on yelled to her dancers in an almost stereotypically authoritative dance-teacher voice, “Look like you like it!,” our students had no need to follow this command: they were already rapt, crowding around the doorway with smiles from ear to ear.
The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the students’ dance class, which gave them the opportunity to get on their feet and try some of the moves that they had been watching the older dancers perform in the studios. Ms. Gaskins, a former Ailey company member herself, led the students in 45 minutes of warmups and basic choreography, culminating in about a minute of intensely choreographed dancing. The students, who had been rambunctious and talkative on the way to the Center, were silent, focused, and attentive when they got their chance to dance. They were thrilled when they were told that the “Dougie,” a dance move popularized by the 2010 song “Teach Me How To Dougie” would be incorporated into their final piece. Their comfort level with this dance brought them out of their shells, leading to an outrageous eight-count of freestyle dancing, which Ms. Gaskins emphasized was meant to showcase the dancers’ unique personalities. Trust me when I say that there was no shortage of personality with these students.
All in all we had a fun and full day, in which the students learned that dancers, despite their delicate reputations, are truly athletes. The students were encouraged by the day’s activities to let their creativity shine through, and even the tough guys in the class left the Center with an appreciation for the finer elements of dance. Their excitement about the center has caused their interest in the book about Ailey to skyrocket, and this visit will no doubt propel their reading engagement moving forward. Not to mention that they picked up some pretty cool moves along the way.