At the start of the school year, Omana Jacob dreaded having to appear before an audience. The 8-year-old knew she had an upcoming performance at her church but suffered from a bad case of nerves.
Then Kids Dance Outreach came to the fourth-grader’s school, Tindley Renaissance Academy on the Eastside, and Jacob had a complete change of heart. Dancing alongside her classmates for 10 weeks quelled whatever fears she once had.
The classes “helped me believe in myself and get more confidence,” she said. “It helped me strengthen my courage not to have stage fright.”
On a gray, November morning, Omana and about 40 of her classmates performed in front of an assembly of their parents and peers. While their moves were crisp, from a demonstration of rudimentary ballet steps to a dance set to the rollicking “We Go Together” from “Grease,” the true testament to what the students had mastered came at the end of the performance.
One by one, they took the microphone to share what they liked about Kids Dance Outreach.
How we all interact with each other and freestyling.
How they taught us to be ourselves.
We got to help each other.
I like dancing because it gets my energy out.
I like dancing because you can show the true emotions in your body.
A few years ago, Butler graduate Michael Johnson returned to Indianapolis for a two-year visiting professorship at his alma mater. He had spent more than a decade on the East Coast, first as a professional ballet dancer with the Boston Ballet and then helping to run that organization’s community outreach program, which reaches thousands of Boston schoolchildren each year.
Indianapolis’ lack of a comparable program struck Johnson — so he decided to start one.
For the past three years, Johnson has been bringing what he calls “high-quality dance outreach” to children during the school day. The idea is to reach children who might not have access to after-school dance programs or classes, either because their parents cannot afford such programs or have no means to get them to classes.
Through eight- to 10-week class sessions, Johnson and the seven or so teachers with whom he works not only introduce students to the rudiments of dance but also focus on using the experience to foster discipline, confidence and cooperation.
“We’re not looking for the next professional dancer. We’re looking to give a high-quality arts opportunity to kids,” Johnson said. “Our program is so much bigger than just learning dance steps.”
In 2015, the program will offer sessions at eight Indianapolis schools. In addition, it will run one-time workshops for students about dance at an additional 15 schools. Kids Dance Outreach, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, also offers a program for children with disabilities. In all, Kids Dance Outreach will touch 1,500 students’ lives this year.
The program has proved so successful that the organization already has a wait list of schools that would like Kids Dance Outreach for their students. But finances limit how many teachers Johnson can hire and, therefore, how many schools the program can serve.
This fall, Kids Dance Outreach worked with half of the fourth grade at Tindley Renaissance Academy. The other half will go through the program in the spring. Depending on the school, classes meet once a week for an hour or sometimes two.
Some schools host the classes at their school; others bus the students Downtown to the Athenaeum for lessons.
Classes start with the simplest ballet steps. But during the weekslong program, students learn a variety of dance styles. Dance, Johnson said, is no different than other disciplines, in which one must master the basics for a strong foundation.
“Before you do math, you have to learn numbers,” Johnson said. “There are steps to everything.”
Many school officials welcome the opportunities that Kids Dance Outreach affords. IPS Super School 19 features an action-based curriculum with lots of chances for physical education.
But Principal Aleicha Ostler recognized that few of her students could afford costly dance lessons.
So when she heard about Kids Dance, she invited them, two years in a row.
“I see a lot of kids find a talent that they didn’t know they have and get to step up and be leaders,” she said. “It teaches them to support their academics with focus, discipline, following along steps, remembering. There are just a lot of skills I feel it helps our students with that will help them down the line.”
Although the program does not focus on discovering budding dancers, if the dance teachers find children who want to go beyond the school’s outreach programs, Kids Dance Outreach offers additional classes through its after-school extension program.
Tremaine Fields, who says he was “born a dancer,” is just the sort of child who can benefit. Before Kids Dance Outreach came to Tindley, the fourth-grader had to content himself with watching dance shows on TV like “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” and imitating the dance moves he saw there.
For him, Kids Dance Outreach has been a welcome revelation.
“I learned there was more than just freestyle. You can do dance in a group,” he said.
Now, Tremaine has joined Kids Dance Outreach’s extension program and will appear in a performance of The Nutcracker this holiday season at Carmel High School.
His mother, Tamika Fields, is overjoyed that her son finally has an opportunity to take his love of dance to a new level.
“He’s loving being able to be in a dance group,” she said. “He set his eyes on it as soon as he heard about it. This is just a stepping stone for him.”
For most students, however, the program offers a release from academics and helps them feel that much better about their own capabilities.
At the end of every class, teachers have the students form a circle, and then they turn on Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and invite students to do their own thing in the middle.
“It makes us feel like we’re in a different world,” Ma’kenzee Mastin said. “We just start dancing.”
Call Star reporter Shari Rudavsky at (317) 444-6354. Follow her on Twitter: @srudavsky.