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Students Get On Point With Alvin Ailey Summer Camp

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday July 07, 2006

Deangelo Wilson, an aspiring basketball player, is learning a valuable lesson this summer: plies and jump shots are remarkably similar. 

Basketball is like dance, because, “you learn footwork, endurance, stamina, all that,” he said. 

The 12-year-old seventh-grader at Cal Prep in Oakland participates in AileyCamp, a free, intensive, six-week camp, where 90 middle school students are taught jazz, ballet, African and modern dance, in addition to personal growth lessons. The camp, a production of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, is in its fifth year in Berkeley. Cal Performances raises funding for the program.  

Monday through Thursday, students attend dance classes at Zellerbach Hall with renowned, professional instructors. Among them Willie Anderson, a principal dancer with Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley; Derrick Minter, a rehearsal director for Ailey II; Naomi Diouf, Berkeley High School dance teacher; and Alicia Zakon, creative director of Zari Le’on Dance Theater. 

On Fridays, students venture beyond the Cal campus for field trips. Last week, they sailed boats at the Berkeley Marina. 

“[The camp] really gives youngsters structure,” said David McCauley, camp director and former Ailey dancer. “We do it in the guise of dance, because it has a proscribed way of happening, though it teaches them life skills.” 

Students enter the program from all walks of life. Most are underserved; they come from single-parent households, foster care and homeless shelters. They learn about the camp through McCauley, who gives presentations to East Bay schools during the school year, and invites those interested in the program to submit an application. 

Some, like Tiana Watson, a seventh-grade student at Frick Middle School in Oakland who has taken African and Caribbean dancing, have extensive experience in dance, while others, like Ascend seventh-grader John M. Alba-Cerritos, have none. Before AileyCamp, Alba- 

Cerritos, 12, never slipped on a pair of dance shoes. Now, when he discusses career goals, modern dance and jazz feature prominently. 

Campers are bound to a strict dress code. In class, girls wear black tights and a leotard; boys wear white T-shirts and shorts. Outside of class, all wear AileyCamp T-shirts and shorts. No earrings. No nail polish. No distractions. 

This year, an unprecedented 22 boys attend classes, compared with the program’s first year, when just two boys participated, said Cal Performances spokesperson Christina Kellogg. Boys are drawn to the program, in part, because it is analogous to athletics. 

“It really is a physical activity that is as demanding as sports,” said McCauley. 

“And you have to be graceful,” Kellogg added. 

By many accounts, the class regarded as the least restrictive, African dance, is accorded the most popularity. 

“Look ridiculous,” the students say they are told. On Wednesday, they took heed, twirling around, flapping their arms and abandoning the rigid posture their ballet instructor insisted upon earlier in the day.  

Students break from dancing to eat meals—they are served breakfast and lunch—and to attend a personal development session, where they discuss violence, sex, drugs, hygiene, body image and communication skills. 

Instructor Tina Banchero, a former dancer, relates to students via pop culture—she quoted rapper 50-cent in a discussion about violence—which sets the stage for them to feel comfortable sharing their opinions and personal experiences.  

Several former students have gone on to attend schools with emphases in the arts, McCauley said. Others return to camp as helpers. Yejide Najee-Ullah, 18, a recent Berkeley High School graduate, has volunteered since in 2003. She was a student in 2002. 

“Initially, I didn’t want to go (to camp). It was my summer before high school, but I ended up loving it,” she said. “I feel like I’ve needed to give back because I got so much out of it.” 

Diouf, who has taught West African dance and culture at Berkeley High School for 16 years, has seen students transform through AileyCamp. 

They come in “bandana-wearing—really rough and tough,” she said. “By the end of the camp, a beautiful person emerges, and they become a spokesperson for the camp.” 

AileyCamp started in Kansas City, Mo., in 1989. The program also operates in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Bridgeport, Conn., and Kansas City, Ks., 

This year’s Berkeley camp will close with a performance Thursday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall. Admission is free. To obtain tickets, go to the Cal Performances Ticket Office at Zellerbach in advance or the night of the show. 



Students practice their ballet moves at the AileyCamp at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on Wednesday. The camp, offering free dance classes to 90 middle school students, is in its fifth year. Photograph by Suzanne Le Barre.