Jul 17, 2014
01:11 PMConnecticut Today
Connecticut Ballet’s Juvenile Justice Outreach Program Makes an Impact
In the wood-paneled recreation room of the St. Agnes Home, Inc. in West Hartford, a group of teenage girls lounges on the worn sofas and the dated carpet that decorate the space. It is 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in June and the dance teacher has just arrived. The PA system blares, informing the girls that dance class is about to begin. Some emerge from hallways, small children in tow. It’s clear not all are thrilled by the announcement.
Mellissa Craig, the dance instructor who has spent eight sessions working with this group of girls, hands out colorful saris and ankle bells for those who want them. This is a calypso and Indian dance class (as a member of the Judy Dworin Performance Project, Island Reflections Dance Theatre Company and Sankofa Kuumba Cultural Arts Consortium, Craig is an accomplished dancer in both styles), but when the music starts for the warm-up, it is the heart-pumping melodies of Beyoncé.
Most of the six girls in the class are reluctant to participate at first. Craig calls out encouragingly, guiding them through moves to get their heart rates up and let their inhibitions go. It takes a while but most eventually succumb, their reluctance giving way to the music. But there are one or two who never get lost in it; they are easily distracted by their babies in daycare. For those who enjoy dancing, the class is an hour long escape—a way to let loose and have a little fun.
“I like the energy,” says Jaynika Aguirre-Larios, 20, who lives in the facility with her two-year-old daughter, Danieliese.
Craig began working with St. Agnes through the Connecticut Ballet’s Juvenile Justice Outreach Program, which was launched by ballet Artistic Director and CEO Brett Raphael in 2001 to work with incarcerated or recently released youth who could benefit from exposure to dance and other art forms. The program is part of the company's Center for Dance Education. Currently, it partners with the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) on its Health and Wellness Initiative.
The organization operates five outreach programs around the state; in Bridgeport, New Britain, West Hartford, Litchfield and Cromwell. It is in discussions with several other residential facilities about future programming.
Despite being a ballet company, they have only taught a ballet class through the outreach program once, and that was at the request of several girls in the facility.
“We usually do other kinds of movement,” says Raphael. “It’s very diverse, and that’s by design.” Popular programs include hip hop, African drumming and dance, martial arts and spoken word poetry.
As a residential group home for teenage mothers and their infants, St. Agnes, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, fits perfectly within the ballet’s target demographic. The two entities have collaborated before, and Devonna Hall, director at St. Agnes, hopes to work with CT Ballet again in the near future.
“Having the CT Ballet involved with our young women has brought awareness to the women about health and fitness,” Hall says in an email. “Many of our young women struggle with the appearance of their bodies after having a baby but don’t have the motivation to do something about it. As a result of participating in the dancing a few of them advocated for themselves and requested from their DCF workers gym memberships and they have been consistently going two to three times a week.
“For some of the girls, they have changed their eating habits," she continues. "They quickly realized they could not eat certain things before participating in the dancing. It has also helped with some of the girls who were not as outgoing or not comfortable with dancing. They came out of their shell and were willing to participate.”
For Hall, the staff at St. Agnes, employees at DCF and Raphael, the benefits of the outreach program are numerous and obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a challenging experience for the instructors and the participants.
“The specific challenge was motivation,” Craig (above) says of working at St. Agnes. “Many of the girls had full-term (or close to) pregnancies, and those who had children often had to tend to them with feedings or illness. With only one hour to work with them per week, I spent a lot of time trying to get everyone in the space and excited about what we were doing.”
The six willing participants on this particular day in June are the most to turn out for any session, and Craig notes that some of the girls are taking part for the first time.
“These girls made me work for it but I’m so glad I got to do this,” Craig says. Would she come back and do it again? “Yes, without hesitation.”
It is clear that the girls have bonded with Craig. They trust her, and while they aren’t always eager to dance, they like having her around.
Many of the young people in these residential and detention facilities come from tough backgrounds. Some have behavioral and/or health issues. When creating a program, Raphael works to pair the right instructor with the right group. In the case of St. Agnes, he chose Craig for her dance ability, but also because she was a teen mother herself. She could relate to the girls on a deeply personal level.
“My experience as a teen mom broke down some barriers,” Craig says. “I know that I gained a little more of their trust and respect knowing that 18 years ago I was in the same boat as they were…I felt a sense of belonging myself and that fact made me want to connect with them even further.”
“It’s about knowing the turf and having the right teaching artists going in,” Raphael explains. “There are all kinds of skill building.”
Each outreach program is very different, created through discussions about what the facility needs from an arts program.
The Klingberg Family Centers’ Webster House in New Britain is a residential living facility for youths ages 12 to 18 who have behavioral health issues and co-occurring medically complex needs. Laura Centurelli, coordinator of the home, says that many of the residents there have diabetes, so there is a major emphasis on healthy eating and exercise.
In forming programs with Connecticut Ballet, Webster House wanted to offer more fitness options. Centurelli says they have brought in many different artists to teach a variety of programs from Latin dance to hip hop. Recently, musician Asaad Jackson (right) taught an African drumming class and dancer Cruz (Alejandro Cruz) offered a hip hop class.
Like the residents, Cruz has a medical issue; he’s hearing impaired. Growing up, music and dancing were an escape, and that’s what he wants to bring to the group—an opportunity to let go and have fun.
“I want to show them that you can cope with dance,” Cruz says.
It’s not always easy, though. As with the young women at St. Agnes, Cruz says, sometimes the residents want to participate and sometimes they don’t—and the second they’re tired or feel their blood sugar drop, they move on.
“They have their ups and downs, but I try to get them to come back,” he says.
Jackson agrees that attendance can be a little hit or miss in his drumming class. At his final session, only one young person opted to participate, performing rhythms he had learned over the last few weeks. Jackson says one-on-one instruction is really useful because everyone is at a different level with the drumming.
“The interest level varies day to day, but I think they’ve been able to take something away from it,” he says.
During his classes, Jackson tries to incorporate lessons on the origins of djembe drums and how to properly care for them. All instructors are encouraged to add pieces of information about their disciplines to elevate the learning experience.
In the beginning, the Juvenile Justice Outreach Program was funded by The Tow Foundation, a family foundation focused on investing in nonprofit organizations and the systems that help vulnerable populations and individuals. For nearly 10 years, the foundation consistently backed Connecticut Ballet’s outreach efforts, which allowed the program to grow. They were able to cultivate a large and diverse faculty of teaching artists and purchase props and instruments–like the djembe drums (below)—with money from the foundation.
“That seed was so crucial,” Raphael says.
In 2011, the Tow Foundation decided to move on and fund other organizations. While he is thankful for the decade of consistent support, Raphael admits that finding backers since the Tow Foundation bowed out has been difficult.
“Over the last three to four years there’s been a slow but steady decline in monies available and organizations funding this area,” says Raphael. “The big sexy programs get funded and others go by the wayside.”
Connecticut Ballet’s program has a relatively small reach, sometimes only impacting a handful of individuals at each facility, but it makes a difference to those kids. Additionally, the relative size of these programs means that it doesn’t take much to fund them, and consistent funding is key. Having someone give this year and not offer it next year is almost more hurtful than not getting funding at all because it builds expectations, says Raphael.
“Sometimes $10,000 can make a yearlong program. The price tag doesn’t come close to what it takes to incarcerate a youth for a year,” he says. “Give $5,000 for a half-year program. Do something, don’t do nothing.”
Starting in 2005, the organization was under contract with State of Connecticut's Judicial Branch (DOJ), providing year-round classes at the Bridgeport Detention Center, SAGE Center for Girls in Hamden, the New Haven Detention Center, the Hartford Detention Center and the Washington Street Detention Center for Girls in Hartford. That contract lasted for seven years.
While the organization was still partnering with the DOJ, Raphael initiated a partnership with DCF to offer programs in its residential living facilities. The goal was to “follow” the youth from detention centers to their semi-permanent locations. This would give instructors the opportunity to lead longer workshops and have a more lasting impact on the residents.
The partnership with DCF now emphasizes health and wellness—a priority of the department for the last three to four years, according to Tammy Sneed, who works in DCF’s Division of Adolescent and Juvenile Justice Services. Dr. Brett Rayford, former division head of Adolescent Services for DCF, championed the partnership. Connecticut Ballet also prioritizes health and wellness in all facets of its company, from the contracted dancers to the assemblies they run in area schools. It seemed like a natural fit for the two entities to pair up on this issue.
Sneed calls their partnership “a great collaborative project.”
“We’re combining the arts with reducing obesity,” says Raphael.
DCF has helped facilitate conversations with interested parties in order to reach as many people as possible. The agency also utilizes federal dollars to fund programs when possible, though Sneed says they currently don’t have any to do so.
Sneed works primarily with Connecticut Ballet on statewide events like a rehearsal at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts in July (above). The kids got an opportunity to see three pieces before they were premiered at Riverfront Recapture. For some, it was the first time watching professional ballet dancers. After the performance, they had the opportunity to ask questions about the dances and the artists.
“[Brett] was able to talk about the health and wellness of the dancers, to show that exercise and eating right is just as important to dancers as it is to them,” says Sneed, adding that making those connections is crucial.
“Mainstream kids get to see assembly programs,” explained Raphael (above), who advocates for kids in the juvenile justice system to get equal exposure to the arts. For them, it can be even more important. “We have an ongoing commitment to provide tickets to that population,” he says.
“We’ve found a niche and we hope to see it get out there,” says Raphael. “We want to just sustain it, even if we only serve 100 kids a year.”
It’s a dreary summer day, and rain beats against the multi-paned windows of the Cedarhurst School in Hamden as a collection of teenagers rally around Dana Fripp, singer, actress and all-around creative whirlwind, for a pep talk before their final performance in front of the rest of the student body.
All of the students attend the school because they have been identified as emotional disturbed (ED) or other health impaired (OHI).
“Be proud of what you’ve done,” Fripp tells them with tears in her eyes. “Do not judge yourselves harshly. We are human and divine. I told you I would stand next to you if you needed me to and I kid you not.”
The performance is a mix of poetry, singing and musicianship completely created by the teens.
“I feel like I just show up,” the teacher says with a laugh.
Throughout the show, they look to Fripp for encouragement and support. She stands at the back of the room, wearing a San Antonio Spurs basketball jersey, fairy wings and a halo—she’s their creative angel.
(Right, from calypso dance class at St. Agnes.)
Betsy Donovan, director of the Cedarhurst School, says that Fripp was the perfect fit for her students and their needs. Many of the students would not have participated in a performance like that prior to working with Fripp.
“It’s a difficult population to work with. For some people it’s overwhelming. They don’t necessarily feel comfortable,” says Donovan. “[Fripp] embraced them, the good, the bad and the ugly. I think that they felt that. It became reciprocal. They really loved her and enjoyed working with her. She made it easy for them to be who they were. I think they felt that immediate acceptance.”
When Fripp was offered the job at Cedarhurst, she had just emerged from an emotionally trying time in her life. She said she was not sure she was ready to take the job, but Raphael assured that she would be great for the position. Working with the group was a therapeutic experience for her. She has battled with depression and attention deficit disorder (ADD) like some of the students. She was able to relate to them because she had been there herself.
(Above, an African drumming class at Webster House.)
“I’m so proud of them for just staying with the creative workshop from January through June,” says Fripp. “I did have some kids who said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ They had to minister to themselves, but I had this core of 10 that no matter what they were going through [they participated]. It did what it was supposed to. It served in a therapeutic fashion. It served in the same way for me.”
Fripp built lasting relationships with the students in her workshop. She even sang at their graduation at the end of the year.
“I already told [Connecticut Ballet], in planning for next year, I’m happy to have new people come in as well, but I want Dana back,” says Donovan.
For more information on Connecticut Ballet and their Juvenile Justice Outreach Program visit the website at connecticutballet.com.