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  • Words by Stacey Bowers / Photography by Alex Kent

The Right Steps: Dance Transforms at Mabelvale Middle

Inside the portable classroom that serves as a dance studio at Mabelvale Magnet Middle School in southwest Little Rock, Kimeka Williams’ advanced dance students buzz with excitement. Today they’re unpacking a new set of jazz shoes that Ms. Williams acquired through Thea’s Art Closet, a program of the Thea Foundation that provides arts materials to classrooms across the state.

Energetic, smiling teenagers stretch and move independently in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, trying out the spotless new shoes and testing their grip on the floor. Most of the students are used to dancing in socks or their bare feet.

“A basketball team can't play without a basketball, swimmers can't swim without a pool, jazz dancers can't execute their movements correctly without the proper footwear,” says Ms. Williams, who submitted her $904 request for jazz shoes to early this spring to have half of it fulfilled by Thea Foundation, an Arkansas nonprofit that advocates the arts in education, and the other half fulfilled by a private donor. “My students are not in a financial situation to afford dance shoes, and I want my students to be able to have the full experience. Jazz shoes provide a grip that socks or bare feet can't.”

Ms. Williams says the vast majority of her students, mostly from the surrounding southwest Little Rock neighborhood, don’t’ have access to private dance lessons, which can be costly, and school is their only window to dance. “The dance program has allowed the students to express their creativity and emotions through movement,” says Ms. Williams. “After middle school, dance is only offered at one high school in the Little Rock School District, which most Mabelvale students don't get to attend. The students are devastated knowing they can't continue dancing in school. Once their parents realize how passionate they are about dance, they begin to enroll them in dance classes in the Little Rock community.”

For Ms. Williams’ students, dance is so much more than a fun elective. It’s an avenue of self-expression, a boost to their confidence, and a reason to love school.

“I have seen so many of my students blossom while being in the dance program,” says Ms. Williams. “So many students start off shy and timid, but by the time they leave the eighth grade I can't get them to stop dancing. They are finding that confidence within themselves that they didn't know they had. The dance students hate to miss a day of school because they know they are missing choreography in class.”

Ms. Williams’ students aren’t alone in their transformative experience with dance. Students who are involved in art forms including dance learn focus, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, collaboration, non-verbal communication, dedication, creativity and confidence. According to Americans for the Arts, low-income students who are highly engaged in the arts are twice as likely to graduate college as their peers with no arts education. Yet, across the United States, funding for and the significance of teaching the arts is often in question. 97% of elementary schools across the country don’t offer dance, and 96% don’t teach theater. When they do, teachers and their students often have to cover expenses. Thea’s Art Closet provides creative materials to classes across Arkansas to fund the arts in our schools.

Ms. Williams is excited that her students will get to wear their new jazz shoes in an upcoming recital for their parents, and her students are excited to take the stage.

“It brings joy to my heart knowing that my class is one of the main reasons they want to be at school,” Ms. Williams says of her students. “They love being able to show off the passion they have for dance... Their energy is my inspiration.”

To find out more about Thea's Art Closet and how you can get your school involved, click here. See Ms. Williams' students perform at their recital, May 10, at 6 p.m. in the auditorium at J.A. Fair Magnet High School in Little Rock.

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