At Springfield's Boys and Girls Clubs, some 30 talkative girls aged 6-12 line up at the gymnasium wall. Athletic director Mattie Watson calls out "Ready. Set. On your mark." Some girls take off prematurely, so Watson starts the process again - and again.
After darting across the gym, they gather at the bleachers. Young women with the Springfield Ballet Company hand each girl a drawstring knapsack and give instructions on how to don the attire inside. They scatter to change.
The girls reappear one by one, transformed in ballet garb: Black leotard, pink tights and ballet slippers. They sit in a circle, and as more girls join, the circle expands like an opening flower as legs extend and arms reach in warm-up exercises.
They stand and line up in three rows. Eyes widen, focused on the young instructors, and smiles become as prevalent as the foreign words spoken to them: plie, releve, tendue, chasses and more. The girls do eight ballet combinations before the hour ends all too soon.
The scenario will repeat every Friday for 10 weeks, put the moves gradually to music, until the big moment: a recital where family and friends can watch them perform classical and contemporary dances along with Springfield Ballet Company dancers who serve as instructors for the program, free of charge.
The Boys and Girls Clubs ballet outreach program is in its eighth season. The program usually takes place in the fall, but because of the club's funding issues and the central unit's temporary shutdown last summer, the program didn't get under way until January.
The original plan was to initiate a scholarship program for young dancers who could not afford dance lessons, says Julie Ratz, SBC's artistic director. Criteria and transportation were difficult to determine, which led to partnering with the Boys and Girls Clubs. "There was a huge interest in dance class ... We even had a few boys. It has helped many young kids learn the basics of ballet, improve their strength, flexibility, discipline and self-esteem. It has given them an appreciation of one of the performing arts and the opportunity to learn to dance as well as attend performances."
Watson recruited participants, some of whom have been active in "praise dance," which Watson teaches and dancers perform in area churches. Many have never had a lesson.
"It's different," she says of the ballet program. "They're learning something with technique and seem to enjoy it because they're learning something new. I see smiles. That's all I want to see."
The ballet outreach program has been successful, according to SBC's Ballet Mistress and program coordinator, Gina DeCroix. "Children who otherwise may not have the opportunity to experience dance are learning ... Ballet provides children with poise, grace, discipline, coordination, confidence ... These qualities will positively affect all aspects of their lives and their future educational pursuits.
"It's really gratifying to be able to offer dance to wider populations at no charge," Decroix continues. "We give them everything - shoes, leotard, tights. They have the complete experience. It's a part of their day where there's uniformity - no competition, no imposed ideas of class or money, no one's dressed better than another. And it's nice to see the relationships between kids and the kids and instructors."
One of those instructors is Tiffany Riech, 17, who serves as the group leader. "It's fun to teach something that you really like to do. As a group you can see them get better and better. It's fun to watch them grow in such a short time. I like it because it feels good to do something and be able to give back."
As for giving, the program began with funding from a community outreach grant followed by sponsorships to finance it.
"We have not secured funding for this season," Decroix says. "It was difficult to ask for funding for a program that had a tentative future as of last summer. SBC decided to do the program this season regardless of funding, because we believe it is such an important opportunity for this specific community."
Story published Friday, March 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 2 )