The dancers of tomorrow are honing their craft today at Los Angeles High School, which is the beneficiary of a $5,000 grant from the Flourish Foundation for the school’s dance program.
The program has thrived under the tutelage of professional dance instructor Jennifer Lee, a 2007 L.A. High graduate who has re-energized the program after taking the helm in 2013. Lee said she wanted to be a dancer since she was 9 years old, and the lessons learned during her four years as a student in the school’s dance program taught her the benefits for young people, particularly those from disadvantaged families. She uses dance to help students unleash their creativity, which almost always results in better grades and improved self-esteem, she said.
“It’s definitely a stepping stone. It helped me academically in school. I graduated with high grades because I did something that I loved,” Lee said.
Leading the L.A. High dance program is a dream come true, Lee added, because it gives her an opportunity to give back to a program she said shaped her life. The results are evident in the young dancers, who practice six days a week and said they feel like they are part of something important.
“During my freshman year, I saw the dance show and I saw people come together as a family, and I wanted to be part of that family,” said junior Karla Escamilla, who has been in the dance program for two years. “My goal is to inspire kids through dance. You dance, and it helps you escape from troubles in life, and have fun.”
Escamilla is the co-captain of the dance program with senior Perla Jolon, who said she hopes to become a dance instructor after high school so she can inspire others. Her older brother was in the program a few years ago, and she said he showed her that something special can be accomplished through discipline and training.
“I used to watch the dance production show and my brother was in it. He motivated me to want to learn dancing,” Jolon said. “It’s the great positive energy everybody has. You get to express yourself .”
Lee provides instruction in lyrical, contemporary, hip-hop, house and Latin dance styles. Approximately 30 students are currently enrolled in the program, but some years as many as 50 students participate. The students receive arts and physical education credit necessary for graduation.
Lee said one of the key components is periodically gathering the students together for discussions, where she addresses concerns and helps with problems they may be experiencing. She said talking about struggles with grades or personal issues and getting them out in the open helps the students learn and move forward.
The group is currently training for the upcoming spring dance production, titled “Shaping Sounds”, which will run from May 20 through 22 in the school’s Corwin Theatre. The dance students also recently performed in a Black History Month production, and a talent show in October. Lee described the spring performance as the “biggest event of the year.”
“We have been in preparation for four months,“ Lee added. “They are training really hard, and are showing a lot of commitment. We have 18 routines for spring.”
Joyce Kleifield, executive director of the Harrison Trust, which raises funding and supports arts programs at L.A. High, said the grant came as a surprise. Philanthropist Monica Rosenthal, co-founder of the Flourish Foundation, was driving by the school on Olympic Boulevard last fall and heard the marching band, Kleifield said. Rosenthal made an appointment with school administrators, and learned about the arts programs offered on campus. She informed administrators that dance is one of the programs the foundation supports, and Lee applied for a grant. Kleifield said the funding was received on Monday, and will be put to good use.
“It was one of those things where neighbors of ours noticed the things going on at our campus,” Kleifield said. “Our dance production program is one of the many things supported by the Harrison Trust, but we are always looking for additional support.”
Lee said the grant will be used to purchase costumes for the spring musical, and to pay choreographers and stage technicians.
“It’s going to impact the students in a huge way,” she added. “All I ever wanted as a teacher was to create an environment where the kids can come and don’t have to worry about anything else. They are able to do that because of this grant.”
Lee said many opportunities exist for young people seeking to become dancers. While only a few may find jobs in movies, professional shows, television and music videos, there is a thriving market for instructors, choreographers and behind-the-scenes production personnel. Two years ago, she started her own business — Outkast Dance Company — and said it has opened many doors.
“These kids go into the program not knowing how to dance, but they have potential and want to learn,” Lee said. “You see, year by year, how they develop as a dancer and a person. It gives them something to push themselves forward that lasts well beyond school.”
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