On Aug. 13, at Hostos Community College, some 100 youngsters, 11 to 14 years of age, burst onto the stage of the main theater in a program bristling with energy, enthusiasm and talent, demonstrating not only what they learned but also how much fun they had during a six-week stint this summer at CAS/AileyCamp. Judging from the rousing applause that greeted their performances as the night unfolded, this program celebrating the 25th anniversary of a unique cultural and educational institution was a success.
The program opened with a performance by three former AileyCampers of “I Wanna Be Ready,” from Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece “Revelations,” as a tribute to recently deceased Ailey dancer Dudley Williams, and it ended with a festive finale as confetti rained down on the AileyCampers and staffers, and the audience leapt to their feet cheering and applauding.
At one point during the evening, AileyCamp National Director Nasha Thomas gave the audience a brief history of AileyCamp, saying, “This program started because Alvin Ailey had a vision. He started the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater back in 1958, and in 1989 he was in Kansas City and expressed a desire to start a summer camp for young people, so they have somewhere to go to express themselves and learn about themselves.”
Now, AileyCamp sites are in eight cities, from Berkeley/Oakland, Calif., to Newark, N.J., and, according to Thomas, the AileyCamp programs have expanded to offer sessions year-round. In fact, almost as soon as the curtain went down on the 25th anniversary celebration, Thomas indicated she will begin working on the winter session.
“The AileyCamp Too! follow-up program is for whoever wants to come. That includes kids who were not able to participate during the summer and were put on the wait-list, as well as new students,” Thomas said a few weeks ago during a tour of AileyCamp in upper Manhattan, “Letters go out in September for the program that starts the second week in October. While winter enrollment is not as large as summer, the programs are just as rich and enriching. Then, when the winter session ends, we begin recruiting again in January. ”
During that tour, Thomas gave visitors an opportunity to sample the richness of the AileyCamp experience. In a spacious, sun-drenched gym, youngsters wearing black leotards, tights and signature AileyCamp T-shirts followed an African dance instructors’ lead as they moved to the rhythm of the drum.
In other classrooms, students took modern dance, ballet and jazz classes. In a small auditorium, a group of young boys sat in a semi-circle hunched over large inverted plastic barrels, rhythmically pounding them with drumsticks, following their instructor’s beat and filling the room with vibrant Samba rhythms.
Down the hall, a personal development class was under way. Students began by reciting a series of affirmations before launching into a discussion, led by their teacher, of the thorny issues confronting today’s teens, such as how to deal with bullies on social media.
Although dance is at its heart, the AileyCamp curriculum is designed to nurture the bodies, minds and spirits of the students. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater website describes AileyCamp as “an innovative summer program for children ages 11-14 that uses disciplined dance training, creative writing instruction, personal development and communication workshops to help campers develop respect for themselves and others that meaningfully impacts their lives.”
Two young students had their own descriptions. Eleven-year-old Emmanuelle Patterson, told one visitor that the camp feeds both her love of dance and her dream of one day becoming a neurosurgeon by teaching her the discipline she’ll need as she grows up.
Twelve-year-old classmate Arnel Wilson called AileyCamp a dream come true. “At AileyCamp, they understand your differences and what makes you who you are,” he said. “They help build your self-esteem, something you need, especially in your teenage years so you can think better of yourself and have more confidence.”
For Children’s Aid Society President Phoebe Boyer, AileyCamp is a source of pride in the partnership between the Ailey organization and the Children’s Aid Society that has helped sustained AileyCamp New York.
“For nearly two decades now, CAS has been a proud organizational partner of this camp,” Boyer told the audience at Hostos. “Because of this longstanding relationship with Ailey, over 2,000 young people have been able to attend this camp. There is no question that these students learn much more than dance during their six weeks here in the summer. They get to make new friends, they discover New York City, but most importantly, they learn more about themselves and that they can accomplish any of their dreams.”
For Thomas, the recent Hostos program was not only a celebration of the past 25 years but also the beginning of the next 25 years. Anyone who wants to be a part of this unique experience should email AileyCampnewyork@ailey.org.