“Help save the world” sounds like a rather ambitious 2017 New Year’s resolution, so I won’t call it that. But there is this new thing rising in me that I feel compelled to share.
It all started last spring. With my son turning seventeen, and a trio of Really Challenging Years behind us, something in me began to relax, or maybe wake up, to the fact that this world of ours comes with a host of Really Big Problems to try and help solve. Or maybe my daily mindfulness meditation practice starting yielding its own results. Point being: I heard the whisper of a call.
Now, I will argue that devoting oneself to passive tasks such as writing about the arts is not completely off the mark in the department of “helping to save the world” and/or make it a better place. If everyone spent their time immersed in work they found relevant, nourishing, challenging, important, I’m willing to bet we’d all live on a more peaceful planet.
That said. You tell people you served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, and it will produce a different reaction from when you tell them you’re a blogger who devotes big chunks of your day to waxing lyrically about the performing arts—preferably the fuddy-duddy classical stuff from the 19th and early 20th century.
Did I tell you I served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa?
But that was another life entirely. Decades ago. Writing novels and raising a family claimed that space in my heart, it would seem. Until one day last May, after a Diablo Ballet performance, when I was talking with the company’s artistic director, Lauren Jonas. Art has a way of clearing out my inner clutter to begin with, and it had been a delightful, artful program. Lauren was telling me about a new extension of their PEEK* outreach program. This endeavor, funded by a California Arts Council grant, brought Lauren and PEEK’s associate director, former company dancer Edward Stegge, into Juvenile Hall, where they presented movement classes to at-risk incarcerated 15-to-17 year-old girls as part of their in-house Court School Program.
Diablo Ballet had been one of only eight organizations receiving awards for this highly competitive and limited-funds program, called JUMP StArts*. Lauren told me she’d been thrilled. “When I co-founded Diablo Ballet, back in 1993,” she said, “something like this had always been a part of the plan, the dream.”
Lauren shared a few details about the program, that had begun in mid-July the previous year. Once inside the facility, she and Eddie were screened and fingerprinted, given a list of things they could and could not do. They’d been told what colors they should not wear, questions they could not ask. They had to be accompanied by guards and were warned that some of the girls might have difficulty expressing themselves, and/or might start fights.
And then the once-weekly program started. Not dance classes or lectures, so much as movement creation exercises, discussions that taught the teen girls about themselves, their bodies, the self-esteem within them Lauren believed could be coaxed out, and a healthier self-expression. After just one session, Lauren and Eddie knew they had found something extraordinary. Some weeks they brought a musician along for live music, like Bolivian guitarist Gabriel Navia, which the girls loved. Sometimes they brought other dancers, like company member Amanda Farris, whom the girls had seen on the cover of the Diablo Ballet magazine. Here she was now, beautiful, famous, and so warm, so accessible! Venezuelan company member Rosselyn Ramirez was another great hit with the dancers. During one movement exercise, she assured a particularly difficult girl that the way she was doing the movement was perfect. The girl clasped her hands together and turned to her neighbor. “Did you hear that?” she said in a hushed, awed voice. “She said I was perfect.” Which, when Lauren recounted this to me, made my throat squeeze up.
(*PEEK = Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids)
(*JUMP StArts = Juveniles Utilizing Massive Potential Starting with Arts)
The program ran from July to February. Lauren had already begun searching for additional grants in the hope of keeping the program annual (which they received – yay! – and this second year’s program continues through Feb/early March 2017). She and Eddy agreed that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences they’d ever had.
Her own quiet excitement, enthusiasm, deep commitment, was like a big gong within me. It was a real I want to join the Peace Corps moment, like I’d had at age twenty. It all came rushing back to me, the desire to be more, do more, to try and make a bigger difference in the world.
On my drive home from the performance, a reality check settled in. I’ve come to understand that I am not an extraverted do-er. I had a tough time in the Peace Corps, truth be told. My introverted side took over in a major way and, if I can be honest here, I didn’t do anything noble in the least. My greatest achievement was sticking out my two years and letting the host nationals observe on a daily basis that white, privileged Americans could be bumbling and stupid, make mistakes right and left, and not have any more answers than they did. Outside my teaching hours (English to high school students) I took comfort in writing, being alone. I spent hours journaling, reading, vicariously immersed in someone else’s misadventures, processing and chronicling my thoughts and feelings.
But there’s room in the world for both, right? The world needs the do-ers, the performing artists, activists, leaders and such. But it needs its observers, processors and scribes. Those who can help spread the word and offer support, financial or otherwise.
Which is what brings me to my 2017 New Year’s resolution. I hereby announce the creation of Classical Girl Giving. I am still in the process of figuring out precisely what this entails, but my thought is to offer a quarterly donation to foundations, companies, choreographers or organizations in order to help support worthy ballet-based [or influenced] dance projects. The inaugural recipient of the Classical Girl Giving project is, no surprise, Diablo Ballet, supporting their PEEK Extension program.
Beyond that? Yikes. I’m a little intimidated. Giving, as it turns out, is harder than just writing a check and handing it over. But the list starts this month, below, and will be added to, quarterly. Hopefully for a long time to come!
Currently Classical Girl Giving favors California and the San Francisco Bay Area, but if you want to recommend a worthy foundation based elsewhere, please do. Are you a choreographer, artistic director, an arts nonprofit administrator who has a candidate to suggest? I’d LOVE your help. You can either contact me privately or leave a message below in “comments.”
- Diablo Ballet/PEEK Extension Program
- Robert Dekkers, artistic director/Post:ballet
- East Bay Fund for Artists/The McPherson Fund
- Marika Brussel, choreographer/”From Shadows: a ballet on homelessness”