Citystep: Dancing Up A Storm
Look out A Chorus Line, here comes Citystep.
Nearly 100 fifth and sixth graders from the Cambridge public schools and 18 Harvard undergraduates danced up a storm last night on stage at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.
But this weekend's three performances of Citystep mean more to the dancers than an ordinary show would. They mark the culmination of a whole year of work.
Every year since 1983, the Citystep dance program has sent Harvard undergraduates into four Cambridge public schools to teach dance for two hours a week. This weekend, the fifth-grade students and their Harvard teachers will show off just what they have been learning all year.
"Citystep has tests just like other classes. This performance is the Citystep test," says Bill H. Berkman '87, the program's executive producer.
The Citystep students passed their exam with flying colors as they acted out a day in the life of a 10-year-old playing hookey from school. Weaving in and out of an oversized erector set for the stage, the kids and their teachers danced their interpretations of events from a city life, ranging from a gang fight to trying on a new pair of shoes.
Questions About Future
However, while the Citystep dancers demonstrated on-stage how successful the year has been, off-stage, serious questions about the program's future remain unanswered.
Citystep founder and current director, Sabrina T. Peck '84 will leave the company after this year, and many participants wonder whether anyone can replace her.
"I don't think anyone is going to have her sense of commitment and drive," says Betsy Kramer '87, a Citystep dancer and teacher.
"The kids don't usually listen to anyone but Sabrina," says Berkman.
Peck founded Citystep as a Harvard undergraduate. After graduation she stayed in Cambridge to keep the program going. "Sabrina tries to make most classes; she sets up the curriculum and gets the teachers into the classes," Berkman says.
Now she says she feels that it is time to move on.
"I am going to New York to help organize a new international arts festival," she says.
The Citystep organizers have selected four students to run the show next year, Peck says, but she declined to identify them.
"We want to put together a whole new group of people," Berkman says. He says he will also be stepping down after one year as executive producer.
Even without Peck as director, the Cambridge school system's coordinator of dramatic arts Judith Contreucci, who organizes the schools' end of the program, says she is hopeful about Citystep's future.
"All programs tend to assume the personality of the leading person, so Citystep will be a different program without Sabrina's spirit and energy," she says. But I am optimistic that the program's quality will be the same."
"The structure is going to change to accomodate the new leadership," Peck says. "But the focus and the drive won't."
No matter what Citystep does in the future, Contreucci praises the program's current efforts to enhancing Cambridge students' education. "It's a very popular program which has made a tremendous impact."
Playing Roles in Students' Lives
During the school year, the 18 undergraduate Citystep teachers divide up into four groups, and each team is assigned to a class of 25 fifth graders in a different Cambridge school. The classes have been rehearsing for two periods a week since October. Some of the especially motivated students attend special Saturday classes as well.
The Citystep teachers often play an important part in the lives of their students.
"Teaching them is letting them know that someone is there that cares about them," says teacher Celia M. Savitz '89.
"A lot of these kids have hard home lives. Their parents don't speak English, and they have so many problems at home. Citystep brings them out and makes them feel more confident. It helps them take pride in what they are doing," says Clarissa C. Kripke '89, another teacher.
"The Citystep teachers become role models for their students. They aren't as imposing to the kids as regular teachers so a rapport can be built up," Berkman says.
Although classes don't always go all that well, the teachers say they think Citystep does help the students who participate.
"Sometimes you leave [the class] really discouraged that you're not getting through to them," Savitz says. "But in the long run it has really affected them."
"At the beginning the kids are very shy and have low self-esteem, and now they're out there happy and dancing," says Kripke.
The Citystep dancers and teachers aren't the only Harvard students involved in the program. A Graduate School of Design student, Paul Mehlman designed and built all of the sets, and Harvard undergraduates and graduates composed and recorded all of the music especially for Citystep.
"It's really wonderful to be working with the composers. That way the dance isn't a slave to the music," says Kripke.
Harvard administrators praise Citystep's effect on town-gown relations. "The students and the work they do in the community, including Citystep, are the most positive contribution Harvard can make to the community," says Jacqueline O'Neill, associate vice president for state and community affairs.
"They put a human face on Harvard, and that's the best way to do community relations," she says.
The Citystep organizers say they hope to capitalize on all of the good will. "We are looking with high hopes to the Cambridge community for future funding," says Berkman.
Citystep's present budget, which comes in at just under $6000 according to Berkman, relies heavily on grants from various Harvard organizations including the Public Service Fund and the Office for the Arts. They also raised more than $3000 this fall at a black tie ball for 900 at the Charles Hotel.