Jul 17, 2014
01:11 PMConnecticut Today
Connecticut Ballet’s Juvenile Justice Outreach Program Makes an Impact
(page 1 of 4)
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.”