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Break dancers demonstrate the power of young people

It started with six young, "at-risk" Latino break dancers. They came to the Longmont Youth Center every Wednesday afternoon, and met with Jennie Gershater and Brie Anderson, two graduate students from Naropa University in the nearby town of Boulder. Brie and Jennie incorporated the therapy of dancing with the young people talking about themselves, their lives, and issues they were facing, from pressure to join gangs to drug use to problems at school.

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Brie and Jennie were also learning about and trying to incorporate the principles and tactics of coaching Public Achievement.

They asked the older kids, the leaders, “What do you envision for your group?" Their answer: we want to perform more and have more exposure, and we want to travel. After going through an exercise of creating a dream board – where they wrote, said, and danced their group dream – the dancers were clear that they wanted to go to Brooklyn, New York, to learn about the roots of hip hop, they wanted to give back to their community, and they wanted to mentor younger children because they were being mentored.

That was fall 2006. In January 2007, Jennie and Brie learned that the annual Dance/Movement Therapy Conference would be held the following September…in Brooklyn! Looking back, Jennie said that presenting the idea of the group performing at the conference was the beginning of their team really coming together.

The Longmont breakers – now 18 young men and one young woman – were excited about the opportunity for a trip to New York. When they received an invitation to dance as part of the conference opening, they were elated.

The project

Brie and Jennie talked with the dancers about what it would take to get to New York. They made it clear that the dancers themselves would have to do the work to make their dream come true. They also asked the dancers to make a formal commitment to this work by signing contracts with the youth center: from that point forward, dancers would not use drugs or participate in gangs, and they would do well at school.

With assistance from staff at the youth center, Jennie and Brie successfully applied for a grant, but the group still had a long way to go to raise enough money for the trip.

So over the next several months, the Longmont dancers “danced like I’ve never seen kids dance before" to raise money for themselves, says Jennie. At some performances, mothers of the dancers made Mexican food to sell as refreshments. Other families held garage sales and bake sales. “This effort was something that families felt like they could support their kids in doing," says Jennie, “and for a lot of kids it was the first time their parents saw them perform." Jennie’s brother also got involved, making a video to help in fundraising.

In doing fundraising and preparing for the conference, the dancers had to have a clear vision and truly function as a team. “We mentored the older kids, supporting them to support their group," says Jennie. The team had to choreograph a routine for the conference, and the leaders worked with one of the younger kids to develop it.

By the end of September, the Longmont dancers had raised $20,000 – enough to cover their trip expenses. None of the kids had been to New York before, and for some it was going to be their first time traveling by plane.

“They rocked the house"

The Longmont dancers poured their hearts into their conference performance, and got a lot of positive feedback from other conference attendees. “They rocked the house," says Jennie.

Afterward, the kids went on a hip hop tour, which helped them understand break dancing’s lineage and why it was started. They also had opportunities to dance with locals in Brooklyn. In fact, walking through the city, they couldn’t resist stopping at cool places just to dance.

Looking forward

When I asked Jennie if she’d noticed any changes in the dancers, she said without hesitating “They’re talking about their futures." Since many live with instability at home or in their community, this is especially significant. “They have a new belief that it’s possible to work and make a dream come true," and their confidence has really grown as they’ve developed their talents and gifts, and been recognized for them, says Jennie. Now that they’ve achieved their performance and travel goals, the dancers are focusing on their goal of giving back to the community and mentor other young people. They’ve accepted an invitation to teach break dancing to kids at a local high school, and the older dancers are stepping into leadership roles within the group.

“There’s a precious simplicity about seeing brilliance in young people. I’m constantly amazed by that, and inspired," says Jennie. “It’s powerful and magical and has forever changed my life."

Here’s a link to one of several articles published by the Longmont Daily Camera Longmont breakers raising money for trip to New York City.

Special thanks to Jennie Gershater for reflecting on her experiences working with the Longmont breakers.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs