Cambridge Kids Step Out With Style
As Citystep celebrates its fifth anniversary, the dance company continues to reach out to Cambridge by touching the city's heart through its children.
The program began in 1983 when Sabrina Peck '84 and a small group of Harvard students taught dance at a Cambridge public school. From those small beginnings, the program has grown into an immense organization comprised of 40 undergraduates and 100 fifth through seventh graders.
During the school year, Harvard students travel to three Cambridge public schools twice a week and work with school children on dance-related games and specific dance steps. While working in separate classes at the Tobin, Longfellow and Graham and Parks grammar schools, the undergraduates wear a number of different hats including those of dance teachers and of Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
All the work that the Citystep instructors put in with the three individual classes from September to May is geared towards a massive, dramatic dance production held in April. This year's show, entitled Where Go Our Feet?, will be performed on the Loeb Theater Mainstage on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The show marks the culmination of the year's work. But participants say that the bi-weekly classes--and a special Saturday segment for more advanced students--are the most significant part of the Citystep program because they can have a direct impact on the lives of the school children.
In each 45-minute class, a Harvard undergraduate works with two or three children, teaching them simple dance steps. "We start with simple movements like how to move quickly and slowly--really basic things," says Citystep instructor Magdalena Hernandez '90. The movements gradually become more complicated, she says. The children pretend to be different animals including a borsch bear which is a really heavy movement", a "cool cat", a "slithery snake where they slither across the floor" and a "fierce fox where they run and jump."
Hernandez, who worked with the Graham and Parks School, says that the process of preparing the children for the end-of-the-year production was a gradual one. "Slowly we taught them the finale, and we would just drill and drill until they got it."
At the beginning of each session, the director of the class--one of the seven or eight undergraduate instructors in each class of about 20 children--warms up the children and then begins to teach new steps to the group, Hernandez says. While the director teaches the steps, the other dance teachers dance alongside of the kids, helping them to learn the movements, Hernandez said.
Following the initial instruction, the teachers seperate the fifth-graders into smaller groups of twos and threes and work with them further on getting the combinations, she says.
Because Where Go Our Feet? is a dance show with relatively few words, the instructors spend a lot of time teaching the children "how to convey a feeling to the audience." Hernandez says. In the show, the Graham and Parks students perform a dance about a street gang, so "we worked on looking cool and getting that image across to the audience," she says.
The classes work best when the they are small, because it is easier for the Harvard students to get to know the children and help them with personal problems as well as teach them dance steps, Hernandez says. "It's nicer when you have a small group because no matter what, you can't have more teachers. You also get to know the kids better," she says.
The Citystep program goes into different schools each year, and instructors say the group's character varies by school. Vivian A. Newdick '89, who taught at the Harrington School last year and now teaches at Tobin, says that at Harrington "there was a more troubled student body as a whole." As a result the children in the dance classes were sometimes inattentive and unwilling to participate, she says.
By contrast, Newdick says the Tobin children are basically a great bunch except that occasionally they get out of hand. "They're wildly energetic and not easy to keep under control. They're unwieldy sometimes," Newdick says.
In addition to teaching dance, the classes and the show help the kids develop positive self-esteem, says Stefanie H. Roth '89, who has taught classes for two years. "Performing arts are not the center of the universe, but it has a lot to do with feeling good about yourself," Roth says.
Citystep is also successful in breaking down the stereotypes that males may have about dancing, she says. "Dancing is cool and expressing yourself through movement is cool and that comes through to the boys as much as the girls," says Roth. "It's extremely successful in getting guys to loosen up."
"Teaching dance to fifth graders is not like taking advanced classes. The steps you teach them are simple. It's more of an exciting exchange between people," says Rebecca C. Shannon '89, one of Citystep's three directors. "You're teaching kids to be proud of their bodies."
Although most of the children who participate in the Citystep program do so in the course of their school day, Citystep also runs a Saturday program for sixth and seventh grade veterans of the program.
The returning students separated into High Steppers, the sixth-grade retournees, Super Steppers, the most accomplished high steppers, and the Step Ensemble, composed of seventh grade returnees.
In addition to focusing on more advanced dance steps, the Saturday program brings the Cambridge children to Harvard and allows them to get to know more undergraduates.
"Youth supervisors were key to the function of the Saturday program," says Roth, who did the additional choreography needed for the Saturday program. The approximately 20 youth supervisors pick students up at their homes on Saturday afternoon and take them to either the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) or the Currier House Dance Studio for rehearsal and return them to their homes following the practice.
A youth supervisor's job does not end with transporting the older steppers to rehearsal but continues as they have to keep 100 children quiet backstage during the performance nights. They play games with the students like wink,' cards and 'operator' to keep them amused.
The job "has two functions, it provides a second undergraduate role model for kids. Over the year it developed into something like a big brother, big sister program," says Newdick, who also acts as the youth supervisor coordinator. "And Citystep benefits [from having supervisors] because discipline is needed backstage especially at the Loeb to keep the kids quiet."
A good youth supervisor, Newdick says, must have "experience with kids, a willingness to make emotional and time commitments, and reliability."
The Saturday program is particularly good for the show because it brings experienced dancers back to the show, organizers say. The veteran Citystep children show much improvement from their first year to their second, says Roth.
"Their basic level of co-ordination is different. The kids who went through Citystep as fifth graders pick up steps quicker. They're used to thinking in counts. They are used to thinking in terms of right or left or up and down," Roth says. "I can teach a step in half the time that people in school programs do," she adds.
Having experienced dancers has proved so beneficial to the program that organizers this year founded the Step Ensemble, for third year veterans of Citystep. "The Step Ensemble is an incredibly talented group if kids," Roth says. Their training includes an intensive dance workshop in addition to working on the steps for the show, Roth says.
Despite the success of this year's group, Roth, who will co-direct the show next year, says she is uncertain whether she will continue the Step Ensemble. "I'm not sure we're going to do the same thing [Step Ensemble] next year because the group of kids this year was so amazing that we didn't want to let them go and they didn't want to go," she says.
Although the Saturday program makes it possible for Cambridge students to interact closely with Harvard undergraduates outside of the school system and provides experienced dancers, it has also has some drawbacks, organizers say. In particular, the program encountered difficulties this year in the areas of getting the children to show up and finding a space to work.
"I did feel at times that it was a struggle to get kids there because often parents take their kids away on weekends or sometimes the parents need kids to watch younger kids," Roth says.
Further problems ensued because some kids were reluctant to come after missing a few sessions, Roth says, "Kids are sometimes ambivalent about coming. They are afraid that they won't catch up with the group or that they missed the crucial step." In attempt to mitigate this problem, Citystep instructors make an effort to work with these children before or after the rehearsal in "extra help sessions."
Even when the children came to the Saturday classes, Citystep had trouble finding space where they could rehearse. At first the Saturday program was scheduled to meet in the studios above the Freshman Union, but Citystep lost that space because the Union did not have enough weekend staff, Roth says. Fortunately, the MAC agreed to give the dance company a place to work. "Saturday session meant there was a constant battle to find space," Roth says.
As a result, Roth says the organization is considering changing next year's Saturday program to an after-school one.
The undergraduates who participate in Citystep say they view their work as more than just teaching dance.
"My role was to prepare the kids for the experience of performing on the mainstage and to make sure their experience was a good one," says Diane M. Paulus '88, one of the three directors of Citystep.
Although Shannon says she came to Citystep to further her dancing, she remained involved with the program for other reasons. "I came for the dance more than for the public service at first, but now both sides have grown," Shannon says.
Where Go Our Feet? marks the first time that Citystep has performed on the Loeb. In the past, the show has been held in school auditoriums such as the one in the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.
The prospect of performing at the Loeb enhanced the year-long creative process, Paulus says. The stage is much bigger than in other local theaters, and the lighting and sound equipment is more sophisticated, she says. "As performing on the Loeb mainstage became a reality, the show grew artistically," Paulus says.
The new location also allows Citystep to provide the kids with a unique experience. "These inner-city kids don't otherwise have the opportunity to perform on a stage like the Loeb," Shannon says.
But Citystep's presence at the Loeb prompted some controversy earlier this year. Only two student shows a year are given Mainstage slots, and some students argued that because Citystep is not an official member of the Harvard/Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) and is a dance performance, it should not be allowed to perform at the Loeb.
But Paulus defends the Citystep production's right to perform at the Loeb. "What we have is a real dramatic show and we only applied to the mainstage on the merits of this year's production," Paulus says. "There has been a precedent involved because Gilbert and Sullivan [which is also not an HRDC member] performed there before us."
Where Go Our Feet? centers on the children's lives after school and features the six Super Steppers as the main dancers. The children encounter problems in either their extra curricular activities or their home lives. The problems range from striking out at a Little League game to having parents who argue continuously.
The major production numbers include the street gang scene, featuring the Graham and Parks kids, a baseball game scene starring the Tobin School students and a scene in which the Longfellow children act out the Tarzan story. The finale features 140 Citystep kids and undergraduates.
Although last Friday's opening night performance garnered a standing ovation, the Citystep directors say they were left unsatisfied. "We did our opening night performance and we went out for dinner. We thought to ourselves, 'There is something wrong with the show.' Then we sat there at [the restaurant] and mapped out the problems we had with the show on a napkin," says Paulus. "A lot of things were not reading, were not coming across like we wanted."
"The show needed a little simplification and pacing," Shannon says. In order to accomplish these things they changed the costuming and staging, she says. "We dressed the kids in more colorful coustumes and the undergraduates in less colorful clothes in the supermarket scene," Shannon says. "We also brought action that was crucial to the story line more downstage."
In addition, the directors called a special Saturday morning rehearsal for the Super Steppers. "All of a sudden nine months of work comes off in an hour," Shannon says. "Our goal this year was to tell a story. We didn't want a group of dances connected by a weak line, and the story just wasn't coming across."
Adding an intermission and a brief narration before the performance also helped the show to run more smoothly, Paulus says. "They [Super Steppers] were able to take the changes which refers to something in their training. They dealt like pros," Paulus says.
The directors say that Friday night's disappointment helped them to teach the cast the important lesson that everyone needs to improve.
"Once they do opening night, the cast thinks that they can take the easy road," Paulus says. "If you allow yourself to change things, you can make your product even better."
Shannon agrees and says, "Saturday it was totally there. The kids as well as the undergraduates learned what is important to us: it is necessary to continue to improve. The creative process shouldn't end."