Arms rotating backward, dozens of young dancers in matching outfits warm up onstage in the final rehearsal before showtime.
“Shoulders, elbows, cha-cha-cha,” they chant to a sparse audience scattered among the seats of the cavernous theater.
“Up, up, up … down, down, down,” instructor Vincent Chavez calls out, guiding his class as they stretch their arms to the ceiling and then directly in front of them, fingers interlocked.
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Four dozen youngsters soon will be returning to school with plenty to say about what they did this summer after attending a dance camp on the University of California’s Berkeley campus.
And they won’t only be talking about moves they learned like the jeté in ballet or jazz’s step ball change; Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp — conceived by pioneering New York City-based choreographer Alvin Ailey in 1989 — also teaches lessons designed to set middle-schoolers up for success in all facets of their lives.
“The mission is to use dance as a vehicle for self-expression … but at the same time … you’re also learning about professional and personal life skills,” said camp director Patricia West. “[The] program gives youth the opportunity … to figure out how to be [their] personal best.”
Held in Zellerbach Hall, the camp is open to 11- to 14-year-olds in the Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and Albany unified school districts at no cost.
For six weeks, youngsters take four classes a day, rotating through sessions in jazz and ballet as well as African and modern dance.
When they are not challenging themselves physically, they are engaged in activities aimed at developing the whole person: The curriculum includes art projects, writing assignments, role playing and group discussions as well as the recitation of daily affirmations to help campers understand and accept themselves more fully and communicate effectively.
This personal development component covers a broad array of topics from recognizing the difference between healthy and toxic relationships to being true to oneself in the face of peer pressure. Young people also learn how to set goals, manage stress and resolve conflict, as well as to appreciate that their decisions can have far-reaching effects.
“It’s not just dance — these are life skills that they’re learning,” West said.
Overseeing the camp is Cal Performances, the university’s performing arts presenter that hosts appearances by world-renown singers, stage actors and dancers.
Among Cal Performance’s regular visitors is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which has entertained Bay Area audiences with weeklong performances on the campus for all but one of the past 53 years.
And since 2002, the New York City-based dance company has teamed up with Cal Performances to hold Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp, one of nine such youth summer camps in the United States.
Cal Performances not only gifts each camper with a full scholarship but also provides Oakland students with free round-trip bus transportation to the campus as well as breakfast and lunch for everyone. In addition, each student receives ballet slippers, T-shirts, sweatshirts, shorts, unitards and backpacks.
With the exercises over, youngsters don their costumes and arrange themselves in a triangular formation onstage.
No one needs reminding that when the curtain rises the following night, they’ll be delivering a 90-minute performance in front of hundreds of friends and family.
Loud drumming suddenly fills the theater and as the lights come up the dancers’ outstretched arms jerk in unison to the staccato rhythms, their black costumes a dramatic contrast to the bright red backdrop.
Berkeley seventh-grader Isabel Thumas wasn’t very happy when she discovered her mother had signed her up for the camp without telling her.
“Honestly, I was really hesitant to go,” said Isabel who, although no stranger to dance classes, disliked the idea of mingling with kids she didn’t know.
She was self-conscious about wearing a unitard, Isabel explained.
But six weeks later, the 12-year-old had made peace with her figure after seeing the array of different shapes and sizes in class, and there was a new note of confidence in her voice.
“I would say it’s better than most camps,” Isabel said. “It doesn’t matter what you look like — like if you’re thin or big. We’re all equal because we’re human.”
Rowen Weeramantry gives the camp high marks for teaching “life stuff.”
The Oakland 13-year-old practiced expressing himself through abstract art projects and writing poetry, which he read during weekly open-mic sessions.
As for the dancing, Rowen says his body is more flexible now, and he has decided that ballet is his favorite form of expression despite its emphasis on precision.
“I feel a lot of people hate ballet because it’s so strict, but Mr. [Vincent] Chavez teaches it in such a freeing way,” he said.
To learn more about, or donate to, Berkeley/Oakland Ailey Camp, visit https://calperformances.org/community/aileycamp/.