March 16, 2011
Dancing off the street
As on most Tuesday afternoons, 17-year-old Jess Davis parked her red sedan in front of the local Boys & Girls Club and emerged wearing baggy blue sweat pants and a white tank top, her long brown hair hanging loose around her shoulders.
Immediately upon seeing her, a swarm of children who had been congregating at the entrance to the building rushed forward and nearly tackled her with hugs and squeals of delight. The kids, from rough neighborhoods and modest homes, were excited about their hip-hop dance class, taught by Davis through the Santa Barbara-based program Everybody Dance Now! (EDN!)
The youth-founded and youth-run organization was created in 2005 by then-14-year-old Jackie Rotman, a Santa Barbara high school student and member of Congregation B’nai B’rith. Rotman had discovered the cathartic nature of dance and, during one particular dance performance, she was inspired to turn her passion into a community service venture.
When she was 12, Rotman performed as part of a dance troupe for an audience of teenagers with disabilities. When the music abruptly stopped in the middle of their routine, the group spontaneously brought the audience up on stage so everyone could dance together.
“It ended up being this completely transformational experience because I realized how dance can be used to bring people together who might not normally interact and really just give people this strong sense of self-esteem and joy,” said Rotman, now 19 and a junior at Stanford University.
Although relatively young and inexperienced, the teen single-handedly created and managed EDN!, an organization offering free hip-hop dance classes to at-risk youth in an effort to keep them engaged in positive, creative ways of self-expression. The purpose of EDN! is rooted in an unsettling statistic relayed by the organization’s current assistant development director, 15-year-old Olivia Berci: It is estimated that in Santa Barbara, there are more than 2,000 young people who are considered at risk of joining a gang, and the average age of gang entry is 14.
EDN! draws upon high school- and college-age volunteers, as well as paid professional dance teachers, to teach the classes and mentor the children. Operating costs have been covered thus far by grants and private donations – and the Jewish community of Santa Barbara has played an active role in raising these funds.
“Together as a community, we can have such a big impact,” Rotman said. “When you draw on that power, you can really channel it for a lot of social change.”
When Rotman left Santa Barbara for Stanford, she appointed another high school girl to run EDN! until she, too, moved on to college. Since then, the leadership role has been passed down to a group of high-schoolers who share the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the organization, a tradition they plan to continue.
“The fact that we are youth-run really sets us apart because we are able to form a connection with our students that many adults can’t,” Berci said. “They feel that they can relate to us better, and we can be that person who’s not only their friend but their mentor as well.”
The impact of the hip-hop classes is visible not only in the obvious affection the kids express for teachers like Davis, but also in the widespread appeal of the program. Without a studio or central space to call its own, EDN! has formed partnerships with local schools, youth organizations and after-school activity centers where dance spaces already exist. Currently, there are 17 classes held every week at various venues across Santa Barbara, engaging children 6 through 15 years old, although the classes are open to children of all ages.
“That site partner, a lot of times they’re providing tutoring,” Berci explained, “so we come in and provide something fun, something different; it’s hip-hop, so it’s cool, and a lot of the kids really like it and connect with it.”
With Santa Barbara as the model chapter, the organization began expanding nationally in April and has been assisting teens in other cities to form and operate their own division of EDN! Rotman, who is still active in the organization she founded, also recently drew inspiration from a source far from the California coast: Uganda. During a trip to East Africa last summer, Rotman became involved with Breakdance Project Uganda (BPU), whose mission is very similar to that of EDN! One difference, however, is that BPU regularly gathers all of its students, numbering in the hundreds, at a single venue to learn new dance moves, as well as to teach one another.
With this method in mind, Rotman and her team launched Breakdance Project Santa Barbara this year. People from all backgrounds and ages joined together for an enormous dance class on Jan. 16, an event that will be repeated periodically throughout the upcoming months. This is only one of Rotman’s dreams for the expansion of EDN!
“The main thing that I hope is that Everybody Dance Now! can be something that is sustainably run without my leadership,” Rotman said.“You know you’ve achieved something when it can continue without you.”
For more information on Everybody Dance Now!, go to everybodydancenow.org.