Thursday, April 11, 2013

Waiting on the World to Change

I haven't blogged in a few months - things have been happening at Merrimack Hall at lightening speed lately! This entry is the first in a series I will be writing about Project UP's experiences this winter, so please stay tuned and read the whole inspiring story.

Pictured here are 10 of the most amazing kids I've ever met. From left to right, they are Zachary, Lauren, Anna, Katie, Haleigh, Carolyn, Peyton, Anna, Sarah Katherine and Shelby.
The five in black are students at Element Dance Company and the five in white are students in Project UP. This photo was taken just after they performed a dance piece to John Meyer's "Waiting on the World to Change" at the NRG Dance Project in Atlanta. While they are all smiling, this image does not come close to depicting the exhilaration they were all feeling. I'm not sure I believe this, but an audience member clocked the standing ovation these kids received at a full seven minutes; regardless of the length of the ovation, the audience's reaction was palpable. Hundreds of dance enthusiasts were on their feet, wiping tears, their cheers as loud and rousing as the ones I heard at Alabama's National Championship victory over LSU in 2012. And to think this reaction was occurring at a dance competition!

I'm not a big fan of dance competitions. My own daughter participated in them throughout middle and high school and while I enjoyed spending time with her on out-of-town trips and loved watching her perform, I loathed her dance teacher and found the atmosphere of a dance competition to be contrary to everything I had been taught and experienced as a young dancer myself. Seeing young girls tarted up like Vegas showgirls - Jon Benet Ramsey style - and older teens wearing next to nothing while performing suggestive moves to provocative music was not my idea of a wholesome way to foster the art of dance in young girls. I had reluctantly agreed to let Project UP participate in the Alabama State Dance Championships and found that environment much more palatable. Of course, I was thrilled when our students one first place overall in their category (see previous blog post on this experience, entitled "State Dance Champions"). Hayley and I wanted to take our students to a full-fledged competition experience, including staying in a hotel and taking master classes, so we turned to our good friends Nick Gonzalez and Rustin Matthew and their highly regarded NRG Dance Project.

Nick and Rustin created a place in their competition schedule for Project UP to perform, but not compete. They allowed our students to participate in the workshops and master classes in the age level below their actual ages and even allowed us to pay only the observer's fee, just in case our kids got overwhelmed and were not able to take the classes. I was grateful to Nick and Rustin, but not surprised by their largesse - they are both incredible artists who are devoted to educating and inspiring young dancers and have both been a big fan of our programs since they first saw them in action back in 2010.

I wrote about our rehearsals in a previous blog post (We're Going To Change The World) but after selecting the music and setting the choreography on the five dancers from Element and the five from Project UP, Hayley and I knew we had a powerful piece on our hands. The video of their performance (link below), although grainy and unprofessional, will attest to the power of movement to express emotions. Project UP performed the piece at Merrimack Hall's Evening of Dance the week prior to our trip to NRG Dance Project and it received a rousing reception. But no matter how many times I watched rehearsals of this piece, no matter that I had seen it performed before a hometown crowd, no matter how much effusive praise had been heaped on the performance, nothing prepared me for the reception it received in Atlanta.

Just prior to taking the stage, I told the kids that they were going to do a great job, told them to break a leg and then, forgetting how very literal some of them are, I said, "Y'all are going to bring down the house!" Carolyn looked at me with concern and asked, "What does that mean? Bring down the house? I don't want to do that."

"No," I reassured her, "I don't mean we are going to make the house fall down! What I mean is that your dance is going to be so great and people are going to applaud for you so loudly that it will feel like the roof might cave in. But it won't - I promise! This building is very sturdy and even though people will clap really loud, we are perfectly safe."

Carolyn looked slightly reassured and bravely stepped in line to enter the stage. I ran to the audience, where Carolyn's dad had saved me a seat on the second row. The minute the first beat of the music began, the audience started cheering, and they didn't stop until the estimated 7-minute standing ovation ended. After the performance, the parents and I met the kids, Hayley and Melissa backstage, where we shared hugs and kisses, congratulations and high-fives. Nick and Rustin ran backstage between other dance numbers, tears streaming, to hug the kids and tell them what a great job they had done. The parents and I decided to change clothes and meet in the lobby in thirty minutes so that we could head out to get dinner together.

I didn't cry until I got into my hotel room. I had to stand there for a minute and just let the emotions wash over me - gratitude, pride, awe, joy. Then I called Alan and through my sobs I said, "They did it and the audience went wild." I could tell that Alan was crying too. He wanted every detail and I told him how we had a hard time getting through the crowd in the lobby to the elevators because everyone we encountered stopped us to tell us how great the kids were, how wonderful the piece was, how moved they were. Alan said, "Now do you know how Carolyn felt?"

He was referring to a funny comment Carolyn had made to me after the previous week's performance. "Waiting on the World to Change" had been the finale of the Evening of Dance. When the curtain closed, all 10 kids were hugging each other, saying things like, "Atlanta, here we come." Carolyn, standing off to herself and talking to no one in particular, was saying, "We did so great. Everyone is going to be so proud of me. Everyone is going to be so proud of me next weekend. Everyone is going to be so proud of me when I go to the Special Olympics in South Korea. Everyone was so proud of me when I graduated. Everyone was so proud of me when I got a job." She stopped, realizing that I was looking at her. And then she said, with resignation, "Miss Debra, I don't think I can take one more person being proud of me."

Yes, I told Alan, I know how Carolyn felt, because I had been besieged by people telling me what amazing work we are doing, how moved they were, how seeing Project UP and Element Dance Company perform together had changed their lives. While I certainly appreciated all the praise and compliments, I didn't want to stop and listen - I just wanted to change my clothes and meet up with the five kids who have changed my life so we could eat pizza.

Once we were seated at the Buckhead Pizza Company, I asked Carolyn, "Now do you understand what it means to bring down the house?"

"Yep," she answered. "I sure do and we sure did. And I want to do it again!"

Project UP and Element Dance Company brought down the house, they rocked it out, they blew everyone away and they changed the world that night. Please watch this video link and let them change your world too!

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