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Setting the stage

Tiger-run dance program gives kids a stint in Wonderland

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: May 24, 2013
ballet feet

Young ballerinas in the MU-student-run Dance Outside the Box program warm up at the Missouri Contemporary Ballet's School of Ballet in Orr Street Studios. The students will perform with Missouri Contemporary Ballet professional dancers June 1-2 in Jesse Auditorium.

In the back studio of the Missouri Contemporary Ballet’s School of Ballet, dancers Alice Glay, 9, and Analise Bell-Galluzzio, 10, run through their weekly regimen of pliés, relevés and other barre work. Their instructor, Missouri Contemporary Ballet professional dancer Caitlin Younker, asks them what they imagine as they perform a piqué, the crisp bounce of a pointed toe off the floor. “I think about a kitten falling by my foot,” Analise muses. Younker suggests hot lava. The free association continues as she corrects the girls’ form.

The young ballerinas have only a handful of rehearsals left before they take the Jesse Hall stage alongside professionals, becoming dancing hearts in MCB’s June 1-2 performances of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s the sort of experience about which the average tutu-clad fourth-grader could only fantasize. And thanks to the steadfast work of University of Missouri students, it’s their experience.

Dance Outside the Box

Kortney Davis

New MU graduate Kortney Davis, who has been dancing since age 4, volunteers to help kids learn the art of dance. “Confidence; that’s one thing I try to teach them," she says.

Every Thursday afternoon for nearly two years Mizzou’s Kortney Davis and Ashley Hayden have picked up kids from after-school programs at Boys and Girls Club and Granny’s House and transported them to Orr Street Studios in downtown Columbia for ballet lessons taught by MCB professional dancers, who volunteer their time and expertise on a rotating basis. The Tigers serve as co-directors of Dance Outside the Box, a spinoff the nonprofit organization Dream Outside the Box founded by Mizzou alumna/Truman Scholar/homecoming queen/youth advocate Kam Phillips to provide extracurricular activities for Columbia kids.   

Phillips, whose own childhood was peppered with rodeos and dance shows, created Dream Outside the Box in 2009 in the hope of broadening the horizons of kids with limited resources, immersing them in a kaleidoscopic after-school world of fencing, accounting, baking, law, engineering, journalism, gardening and horseback riding. Before graduating in 2011 (and later founding a second chapter in Fort Worth, Texas) she pitched the Dance Outside the Box idea to Davis and Hayden — and then handed them the reins.

Hayden studied ballet in middle school and was a high school track star. Davis has danced since age 4 (“It’s my earliest memory,” she says) but had to take a break in early adolescence when the costs of lessons, costumes and recitals became too expensive for her family. Now she helps ensure that Columbia kids don’t face those obstacles.

“These are free dance classes. I hope they look back on it and appreciate it; that’s really important to me,” Davis says. “Most of all I want them to have fun, to learn the art of dance and to be able to express themselves through dance.”

The rarity of this chance isn’t lost on the pupils.

“Other kids don’t get to have this opportunity,” Alice notes.

“We’re very happy and glad — and thankful — that we’re here,” Analise adds.

The youngsters who will perform with MCB have been honing their dance skills all year — or, in some cases, for two years. Dance Outside the Box opened auditions to Columbia kids last fall and started lessons with a group of 10, but as the year progressed, some participants moved away or became involved in other activities. The June shows will feature four committed dancers who have acquired self-discipline and self-confidence along with ballet fundamentals, their mentors say.

"You can just see how much they’ve grown and how much they’ve matured," Hayden beams.

Service and learning

Ashley Hayden

Ashley Hayden co-directs Dance Outside the box with fellow Mizzou student Kortney Davis. "The best part of working with kids – especially underprivileged kids – is giving them opportunities that they wouldn’t have had had you not stepped in," she says.

For Hayden and Davis, who graduated this spring, a Mizzou education meant a chance to work with children, serve the community and explore career options while earning degrees.

Hayden, a St. Louis native who earned bachelor's degrees in psychology and interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in black studies, volunteered with Moving Ahead, a program providing tutoring and other after-school activities at Granny’s House, and with an adaptive-gymnastics program for kids who have autism and other disabilities. In the psychology department she conducted research in family, adolescent and child-development labs. As part of her capstone project, she worked at Coyote Hill, a home for foster kids — a life-changing experience for Hayden, who now plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work.

“Some of the kids I’ve worked with at Coyote Hill have had some very traumatic experiences with their foster home placement. I’m interested in making sure that kids get into safe homes and homes that they can develop in,” Hayden says. In her volunteer work, she says, difficult stories come with the territory. “The challenging part is hearing different things that are going on in their lives and trying to mentor them and comfort them. It gets hard sometimes because some of these kids deal with real adult situations.”

Davis, a Chicagoan who majored in health sciences in MU’s School of Health Professions, spent her time at Mizzou immersed in two of her passions: dance and kids. She danced with Mizzou’s Main Attraction Dance Team and the His Life Dance Ministry, choreographing many pieces. At the Boys and Girls Club this year she created and taught the First Position dance class on Mondays, led the Hands for Health nutrition and health education class on Wednesdays and oversaw Dance Outside the Box on Thursdays. She also worked part time at a day care center.

“I just love the kids. I feel like I have a really good relationship with them,” Davis says. “The kids have so much energy, and they’re just fun all the time.”

With her new degree, Davis will head to Atlanta to take a job with a public health organization that provides fresh, organic food for people in low-income communities. She also plans, naturally, to get involved with a Boys and Girls Club there.

First, though, she and Hayden will coach their protégés through their big show.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

In its seven years in Columbia, the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, Columbia’s nonprofit professional dance company, has developed a reputation for modern, edgy and inventive contemporary dance. Though based on the familiar children’s story by Lewis Carroll, MCB’s version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is likely to leave the company’s street cred intact. MCB artistic/executive director Karen Mareck Grundy, a Las Vegas native known for creativity and showmanship, has choreographed the ballet, and local pianist Tom Andes, a longtime MCB collaborator, has composed an original score, which will be performed live.   

The four Dance Outside the Box dancers don’t yet know what to expect; they haven’t seen any part of the show other than their own.

“Everyone knows the story, but people have not really seen it in dance form, so it will be very educational and fun,” Analise anticipates.

The girls got a taste of what’s in store for them at MCB’s Dancing With Missouri Stars event May 4, during which they performed part of their heart dance for participants and supporters at the fundraiser. With help from their peers and their leaders, they were able to work through stage fright and pull off a crowd-pleasing show.

“Before they perform they’re freaked out, but when they go on, it’s the best performance they’ve ever done; it’s crazy," Hayden says. “When they get up there and do the real thing, it’s perfect every time.”

Tickets for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are available through the University Concert Series, with discounts for students. For more information about volunteer opportunities for MU students, visit MU Serves.

dancers

Kortney Davis (left) offers input as Missouri Contemporary Ballet dancers Alex Gordon, Caitlin Younker and Caroline Millikin fit Dance Outside the Box students Alice Glay (back) and Analise Bell-Galluzzio with costumes for their June 1-2 performance in MCB's production of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.'

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Last updated: May 28, 2013