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AileyCamp's Khatab Cisskno
AileyCamp instructor Khatab Cissokho demonstrates African dance moves to students. Photos by Peter Dasilva
AileyCamp helps youth leap over life's obstacles

19 July 2002

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - As a hypnotic African drumbeat echoes across the empty auditorium, a group of youngsters springs back and forth across UC Berkeley's Zellerbach stage, their arms and legs jutting in rhythm to the music.

After several minutes of high-energy dancing, the children end the piece with a hearty "Hey!" Hands on hips and breathing heavily, they look to their teacher for feedback.

"Wonderful," says instructor Khatab Cissokho, dressed in a colorful dashiki. "But I want to see your feet even higher off the floor." The kids hang their heads and moan in unison, but when the music starts again, their jumps sparkle with renewed enthusiasm.

Education through dance

This is another typical day at AileyCamp, where firm coaching and words of encouragement are doled out in equal doses to 75 students from local middle schools. The six-week camp, founded by the late dance pioneer Alvin Ailey, targets at-risk youth. Corporations, foundations, grants and the university cover all the costs for the campers, including tuition, dance attire, food and transportation.


Alvin Ailey's philosophy was to develop the whole person, not just dancers, according to camp director David McCauley, a former Ailey dancer and company administrator. The camp is built around this concept. Using instruction in African, jazz, modern and ballet dance forms — as well as classes on personal development, performance techniques and creative communication — the camp seeks to improve the children's self-esteem, discipline and critical thinking skills.

"Putting it Together"
Thursday, Aug. 1
7 p.m., Zellerbach Hall

After weeks of intensive study, the campers will show off their new skills at a final performance. Admission is free; advance tickets are available at the Cal Performances Ticket Office. Call 642-9988 for more information.

"We target kids at this age because they're in the midst of finding out who they are," McCauley said. "We try to provide them with a map to help make these connections."

Hard work, trial and error, and overcoming obstacles are all part of learning how to dance, he added, and this process is a wonderful way to prepare children for dealing with other aspects of life.

The camp is offered in several cities around the country, but this marks the first time it has been mounted on the West Coast. Berkeley's Cal Performances series — for which Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs most frequently, outside of New York City — is hosting the camp.

"When artists come to Zellerbach to perform, there's little time for them to have an impact on the surrounding community," said Hollis Ashby, assistant director of Cal Performances. "With AileyCamp here for a month and a half, local youth will get extended exposure to the arts, which we think is crucial to their future success."

It also helps to have these kids on a college campus everyday, she said, so they can see Berkeley as a possible destination after high school.

"I like the campus, it's nice," said camper Lorraine Chaney, a 13-year-old from Oakland. "Most of the places I've been to are dirty and people don't seem to care."

Tough art, tough love

As the children on stage continue their African dance moves, another group is practicing ballet in a studio tucked in the basement of Zellerbach Hall. The students are diligently working on their jetés, pliés and glissades, endlessly repeating the steps to achieve just the right form. Frustrated, some in the class quit and begin joking and pushing each other around.

Willie Anderson, the instructor (and a member of Ballet San Jose), quickly brings the class back to order. "The only one who should be talking is me," he booms. "If you have something to say, you must raise your hand."

Anderson's approach may be strict, but it reaps important benefits. "The discipline of dance teaches many life lessons," he says. "When something isn't going right, you can't just get mad and give up. You have to learn how to analyze it and work through it, one step at a time."

Having been a troubled child, Anderson understands where some of these kids are coming from and knows they need tough love in order to succeed.

Students dancing
Students perfect their modern dance techniques as instructor Derrick Minter looks on.

"I push them hard, but when they finally accomplish something and a big smile spreads across their face, it's so rewarding," Anderson says. "Dance changed my life forever. I hope it has the same affect on these kids, regardless of whether they become professional dancers or not."

The camp utilizes local talent like Anderson for instruction as well as several UC Berkeley students, who serve as team leaders. The Cal students — all skilled dancers in their own rite — are a crucial bridge between the often rambunctious youngsters and progress-driven teachers.

"I try to stay on middle ground. Not too serious, but not too silly," said Raynelle Gipson, a senior business administration major and hip-hop specialist. "I spend my days doing a lot of talking with the campers, helping them work out conflicts with the teachers and each other."

The kids are at that stage where they constantly test boundaries, said jazz instructor Frances Rosario-Pott. Combine this with the enormous amount of rules and regulations associated with dance, and sparks can fly. "We hold them accountable for their actions, and I think many of these students are not accustomed to this," she says. "We have to encourage and push at the same time, making them understand that they have to work hard to achieve something significant."

Muscles and tears

While some of the campers get distracted during class, others are keenly focused on the task at hand, like Jonathan Breland, a Berkeley eighth grader.

"I like breaking a good sweat and knowing at the end of the day I did a good job," he says. "I can hold my head high knowing I've learned something important and can share that with others."

For Chaney, the camp gives her life purpose. "It's fun to get up in the morning and actually have something to do," she explained. "If it wasn't for this camp, I'd be at home all day doing nothing, just sitting on the porch and talking about people."

While the camp offers something different to each participant, the overall goal is the same: to open the children's eyes to trying new things, says McCauley.

"When the camp ends, some of the children will be crying because it's over," he said. "But there will be tears of joy as well, knowing they worked so hard and succeeded at something they thought was out of their reach."