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Dance, Drumming and Lessons on Life

At Seattle’s first-ever AileyCamp, young dancers learn to stand tall, and to support each other.

August 9, 2016

It’s the middle of a late-July afternoon at the Tukwila Community Center. Though she’s already been in class for hours, Faith Capers, 13, appears full of energy during an hour-long ballet class. She executes a short combination with a series of turns and lands gracefully in arabesque.

Capers, a student at Asa Mercer Middle School in Beacon Hill, is one of 62 students from five school districts in the Puget Sound region who are participating in Seattle Theater Group’s first six-week-long AileyCamp. The camp is a collaboration between STG and the New York City-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The camp exposes kids from diverse ethnic backgrounds to dance, music and spoken word, plus personal development classes. It’s part of a broader effort to teach them about themselves and give them tools to succeed in life through the arts. A free program for students from Seattle, Tacoma, Tukwila, Burien and Renton school districts, AileyCamp is designed to give local kids greater access to arts education. Funding comes from corporate sponsorships, community grants and individual donations.


Arts education, which suffered cuts during the Great Recession, is more important than we might realize. According to the Seattle K-12 Arts Plan, a 2013 report by Seattle Public Schools and the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, students who receive arts ed also achieve in reading, writing and math. At least in Seattle, students’ arts learning opportunities historically have varied widely by school.

In order to recruit applicants, directors from Seattle Theater Group and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater gave presentations early this year at 10 schools in central and south Seattle, south King County and Tacoma. Interested students had to fill out an application and then interview for a spot.

No previous dance experience was required, but these kids had to be motivated, said AileyCamp director Shawn Roberts. “For 85 percent of the kids, this is their first exposure to dance class,” Roberts said. But “all of them have the desire to move.” One camper is a football player.

By enrolling, campers were committing to take dance and music classes and engage with their peers for seven hours every day for six weeks, and during their summer break, no less. Apparently, that sounded appealing to many: STG received roughly 100 applications for 62 spots, according to Roberts.

The final group is diverse, with kids from African-American, Native American, Phillipino, Samoan and Vietnamese backgrounds.

Watch Shawn Roberts, AileyCamp Director, talk about the skills students learn and why they are important.

I visited AileyCamp in late July, on the last day of formal instruction. I watched classes in drumming, ballet, modern, West African and jazz dance, as well as the creative communication and personal development classes. During the camp’s final two weeks, the campers would be working on material for their end-of-camp performance, held in early August.

When I arrived, one group of campers was playing a rousing game of personal development Jeopardy led by instructor Carrie Ivory. Categories were “Hygiene,” “Bullying,” “Personal Development Potpourri” and “Drugs/Alcohol.”

In another room, a group formed a circle with a percussion instructor, Mashud Neindow from Portland, and pounded out Ghanaian rhythms. Roberts noted that they were having much less trouble copying Neindow than they did when they started four weeks ago.

“It used to take them so long to get a rhythm,” she said. Now, after four weeks of practicing, they were getting it in no time. In a third room, Erricka Turner-Davis taught a jazz dance class. When I asked where the choreography came from, Roberts told me that the sequences were drawn from choreography Turner-Davis once danced at Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater years ago. Don Bellamy, a former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer, served as the camp’s modern dance instructor.

Watch some of the classes and games students participate in.

Though the camp’s curriculum comes from the Ailey company, some of the instruction and activities have a distinctly Pacific Northwest flavor. The entire camp went on a field trip to Rattlesnake Ridge, at the foot of the Cascades, where they worked on team-building activities. Ken Workman, a descendant of Chief Seattle, gave a talk to the campers. The Tukwila Community Center, where the camp takes place, is on ancestral Duwamish land adjacent to the Duwamish River.

AileyCamp was founded by renowned African-American modern dance choreographer Alvin Ailey himself in 1989 to provide personal development via the arts to inner-city kids. From the beginning, it was free. It was the last program that Ailey started before he died that same year. There are now 10 AileyCamp sites in the US.

Seattle Theater Group’s camp, one of just two on the West Coast (the other is in Berkeley), is the latest development in a 15 year-long partnership between STG and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Its creation was spurred by the sudden and unexpected passing of AAADT’s longstanding production director, Calvin Hunt, a Tacoma native, in 2014. STG’s executive director, Josh LaBelle, and AAADT’s executive director, Robert Battle, wanted a way to commemorate Hunt, who had been passionate about arts education.

According to Vicky Lee, director of STG’s education and performance programs, they both said in a conversation just before AAADT’s 2014 shows in Seattle, “We’re doing this.” AileyCamp, that is. It’s a remarkably fitting tribute.

Watch Faith Capers talk about why she wanted to participate in AileyCamp.

“The seed of trusting themselves is being planted here,” Shawn Roberts says. “I see them telling each other ‘stand in your power,’ ‘trust yourself.’”

“Trying to get the group to work together… was kind of hard,” says Capers, the middle schooler. “I learned that when you’re stuck with people, you learn how to get along with them and adjust yourself to keep the environment the way it should be.”

These are important lessons to learn before moving on to high school and college. They are also translated into movement and reinforced as the campers stand in their dance classes with heads held high, shoulders back and chins and chests up. They’re learning to dance, and dance together too.

After all, this is not just any summer camp. It’s Ailey’s dance-inspired one. The campers’ experience and memories will live on in both their minds and their muscles.

STG says it plans to hold the camp again next summer and expects it will become an annual tradition, although that depends, to some degree, on funding. “It’s an expensive program,” Lee says. The cost of attendance for each camper is nearly $4,500 — money that must be raised from other sources in order to keep the camp free and open to all.

I see them telling each other ‘stand in your power,’ ‘trust yourself.’

This story was a collaboration between KCTS9 Digital Studios and Crosscut. Read the story on

Leslie Holleran regularly writes about arts and culture for print and online publications. Her work has appeared in national dance publications and in Seattle newspapers and magazines. She began writing for Crosscut following completion of UW’s editing certificate program in summer 2015.

Aileen Imperial is a visual producer at KCTS9 Digital Studios. She combines her experience in documentary film and dance videography to produce a unique mode of storytelling, with a commitment to the act of thoughtful observation and engagement. Her independent and freelance work has screened at several film festivals and galleries, and has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS World’s Global Voices, and the PBS NewsHour’s arts and culture blog Art Beat. Most recently, she was a regular segment producer for the KCTS 9 arts and culture show PIE.