Northeast Ohio Dance Programs Give Kids Cultural Experiences

Northeast Ohio Dance Programs Give Kids Cultural Experiences

Djapo Cultural Arts Institute

Northeast Ohio is enriched by its cultural spaces and communities, particularly activities including arts, theater, music — and dance.

Dance can provide more than entertainment, says Melanie Szucs, associate director of dance education at Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood. She says dance can create a chance for young people in the area to experience the world beyond the Cleveland region — and the possibilities and choices are endless. 

“Through hula, African dance, Tahitian dance, Flamenco, folk dance, Irish dance and other popular cultural dance forms, students can use movement to explore and learn about different cultures,” she says. “Dance brings diverse people together.”

Dance can help bridge divides. It’s a universal language that can connect people and cultures, Szucs says. 

“Martha Graham once said ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul.’ Dance goes beyond language barriers; dancers do not have to be able to speak the same verbal language to communicate with each other. It is done through movement — a universal language,” she says.

We spoke to instructors and directors at centers and studios in the area to explore the “universal language” of dance — and to find reasons why cultural dance is beneficial for everyone. 


Preserving Culture

Beck Center for the Arts

Talise Campbell, artistic director at Djapo Cultural Arts Institute, has been teaching traditional African dance and music in Cleveland for 20 years. She also is a professor at Cleveland State University and Oberlin College.  Djapo, which means “come together,” holds weekly African dance and drum classes in the community.

Each year, Campbell also leads an International Cultural Exchange travel program to different parts of Western Africa. Students go to learn traditional dances, as well as the arts, music, culture and folklore. They then bring it back to Cleveland to teach others what they have learned. 

“Our goal is to preserve culture, and to preserve all of these things that could be lost,”  Campbell says. “If they’re not shared, and we’re not passing it down to the younger generations, then all of this could be lost.”

The program started in 2005, and the largest group to travel to date included 17 participants from Cleveland. The arts, such as music and dance, are ways to bring people together and really learn about one another in a positive way, she says.  

“We want to have diversity,”  Campbell says. “We want people to come together through arts, music and dance, and learn about each other through this art form.”

Djapo hosts a Community Arts Program at the end of each session, in the fall and spring, for families and students of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Participants learn about the culture and context of the dances, where they come from and the meaning of the dances. They learn the traditional dance and the music that accompanies it. At the same time, Campbell says, they are building community. 

“We have people that have come through our doors, who have connected and have made lifelong friendships, families and networks of individuals, who have come together to support one another outside of the setting of the dance school and classes, so it’s our goal to bring people together through this art form,” Campbell says. 

“Especially with African traditions, it’s not something that’s separate from life,” she adds. “As soon as you’re born in Africa, the first thing you hear is music, and the first thing you see is dancing…It’s the very essence of life, and that’s something that exists in every single culture. We have music and we have dance.” 

The next community-wide program will be held in the spring at Playhouse Square. 


Diverse Opportunities

O’Malley Irish Dance Academy

Chris Cipriani, director of programming and marketing at Shore Cultural Centre in Euclid, says the facility provides a variety of opportunities to explore different cultures through dance.

 Shore Auditorium has showcased artists such as Tam Magic, performing African dance and drumming, Beatrice (Bea) Parker’s dance recitals, or Tom Evert’s DancEvert, which has produced shows with international artists. A few recent visiting performances have included Lithuanian dance and hip hop.

Catherine Leneghan Fox, founder of Leneghan Academy of Irish Dance, teaches a traditional Irish dance class at Shore Cultural Centre. She says dance helps groups share their culture and traditions. 

 “Many nationalities in Cleveland have their own festivals or fairs,” Leneghan Fox says. “Dancers are usually well represented at these events. As Irish dancers, we perform at a variety of venues throughout the year. We can be found at libraries, churches, nursing homes, festivals and corporate events.” 

For some students, dance can open doors and possibilities they otherwise would not have had, she says. 

“Over the years, I have had students who have found dance to be ‘their thing,’”  she says. “They may have tried sports or music or other dance forms, but something about Irish dance resonates with them. It is important to expose children to activities that might be outside of the mainstream so they can find the pastime that engages them.”

Alyssa Lombardi, manager of marketing and communications at Fine Arts Association in Willoughby, says students can gain an appreciation for the various cultural aspects of different countries through dance. The courses also instill confidence in students. Many students start out at a young age and continue through their adult years.

“In our mission, we talk about serving all — all ages, all abilities, but that also means all backgrounds and all cultures,” Lombardi says. “We don’t want to limit ourselves to traditional methods, and that goes beyond dance, into other areas as well. We offer very unique experiences, because we believe it serves Cleveland well. Cleveland is such a big, culturally diverse city, and we want to make sure we are bringing all of that to fine arts.”


Dance and Creativity 

 ​Szucs says all forms of dance are beneficial. Students learn body awareness and engage a healthy, active lifestyle. Dance can increase self-expression, build confidence and requires students to work together as one within a diverse group of individuals. 

“Dance fosters creativity,” Szucs says. “There is no perfection in dance; students learn perseverance as they strive to master skills and challenge themselves to go farther.” 

Creativity is intrinsically tied to dance and dance history. Hip hop, for example, began in the streets of New York City in the 1970s and is a style of dance with historical and social roots in the African culture, she says. Styles of hip hop dance include breaking, popping and locking. Hip hop has evolved through the years as artists create their own personal movement vocabulary and interpretation of current music.  

“Hip hop music and dance is to today’s youth what rock and roll was to the youth in the 1950s and 1960s,” Szucs says. 


Get Fully Engaged 

Fine Arts Association, credit to Parkerfotos

Beatrice Parker teaches at several venues throughout the region. She also is a dance faculty member at the Fine Arts Association (FAA). She teaches African dance, pre-ballet and tap. Parker recently received the The Reverend Vincent R. Miller Community Impact Award at the NAACP Community Awards Event for her work in the community. Additionally, she serves as an instructor at Fairmount Center for the Arts.

She says the students’ experience goes beyond dance and learning the moves, and it goes beyond the classroom. It’s learning to carry oneself well and it means becoming an active member of the community.

“We have a language here that strengthens students,” Parker says. “We don’t need to be the cookie cutters, but instead, the explorers.” 

One unique opportunity Parker offers students is bringing in “Capezio,” a dancewear company, to allow students who normally would not be able to experience or afford the dancewear to try them on. This is a rewarding opportunity for students’ hard work in and out of the classroom, she says, and it also allows them to actively engage in the experience. 

Leneghan Fox says her classes try to immerse Irish dance students and help them realize there is more to take from the experience than just the moves of a dance.

“Irish dancers are exposed to the music of Ireland,” she says. “We try to use Irish counting words in class. The embroidery of the costumes has its roots in Irish history and art. Many of our choreographed dances tell a specific story or legend from Irish culture.”

Traditional Irish dance costumes have elaborate embroidery designs taken from the Book of Kells, an illustrated version of the Gospels created by Irish monks circa 800 A.D. Other designs reflect Christian symbolism taken from Celtic Knots and mythical beasts. These details help keep Irish history alive all these years later, Leneghan Fox says. 

“Contemporary costumes have evolved into other forms of art, but the traditional base can still be found,” she says.  


Understand and Celebrate Cultures 

Fairmount Center for the Arts

According to Aisling O’Malley, dance instructor at O’Malley Irish Dance Academy, being exposed to other cultures is educational. She learned about many of the facets firsthand as a former lead performer in Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance.” 

“Through Irish dancing, I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to travel all over the world with professional dance shows,” she says. “You truly don’t understand how much you are missing out on in life until you can travel and experience different cultures and people. I personally became much more respectful of other cultures and developed a higher appreciation for my own culture, as well.”

While most people can’t afford to travel all over the world, the next best thing is to explore the cultural activities in your community, she says. First, you are meeting a new community of people outside of your day-to-day routine. Second, with Irish dancing, there are opportunities to travel nationally and internationally, as some students travel to Ireland once they reach a certain level in competition. 

Students are meeting different people from all different areas, learning to be disciplined and setting goals for themselves, gaining confidence and stepping out of their comfort zones, O’Malley says. There is so much to be acquired from trying Irish dancing or any other form of cultural dance.

Jeannie Fleming-Gifford, executive director of Fairmount Center for the Arts, says dance provides a chance to celebrate a wide range of cultures and traditions. 

 “We serve a diverse community,”  she says. “We know people come from all different places and all different perspectives. So, in creating the curriculum and programs we are offering, we definitely wanted to be receptive of different interests, and where people have come from. We also wanted to take time to celebrate those cultures, and that gives us a chance to educate and inspire others to learn about them.”

For example, Fairmount Center for the Arts, in Novelty, recently held Fiesta de Baile in October 2019 in celebration of Libby Lubinger, founder and artistic director of Fairmount’s Spanish Dance program. The ticketed event included an afternoon of Spanish dance, music and tapas, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate the Spanish heritage, Fleming-Gifford says. 

“When it comes to cultural dances, of course, they are not only learning the dance moves,  but they are also learning about the culture itself,” Fleming-Gifford says. “You really start to have this much bigger understanding of a culture that all started with a movement.”

Fleming-Gifford says she’s noticed a growth in interest in cultural dances, which reflects that “society is thinking about diversity and cultural aspects more often.” 

O’Malley says that dance programs provide students with far more than they may appear at first glance. 

“It’s always important to expose children to various activities so they can reap all the different benefits that come from each one,” O’Malley says. “While you may initially think signing up for extracurricular activities is a great form of exercise or fun, your child will be benefiting in so many more ways than you may realize. These different activities are providing them with skills to help them later in life.”


Places to Damce

Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood offers dance classes for students ages 2 1/2 to adult. Early childhood classes include pre-ballet, preschool dance and kids-n-dance. Youth classes for ages 8-12 are offered in ballet, tap, jazz and hip hop. Teen classes also include pointe and contemporary dance. Beck Center offers adult-only classes in ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary dance, as well as special offerings, including pilates, yoga and “Body Beautiful.”

Djapo Cultural Arts Institute classes are held at Saint Paul’s Community Church at 4427 Franklin Blvd. in Cleveland.

Fairmount Center for the Arts offers various performance opportunities for students in addition to the community open house experiences, including the Winter Warm-Up and a fall open house. The next Winter Warm-Up will be held Jan. 11 from 10 a.m. to noon, which will showcase a sampling of programming offered at Fairmount Center for the Arts, located in Novelty. Winter Warm-Up is free and open to the public.

Fine Arts Association in Willoughby offers modern, contemporary and hip hop classes, which range from 15 to 25 participants from across Northeast Ohio per class. Courses are available for children, teens and adults. FAA also offers the Sarah Weeden Richardson Minority Scholarship to serve students of minority groups who have expressed a financial need.

Leneghan Academy of Irish Dance offers classes in Middleburg Heights and Westlake.

O’Malley Irish Dance Academy in Lakewood offers traditional Irish dance lessons in both solo dancing and team/group dances. Classes for girls and boys ages 3 1/2 and older.

Shore Cultural Centre offers a wide range of cultural and educational programs and events. Shore is home to art studios, businesses and organizations, as well as the Euclid Farmers’ Market during the summer. Silhouette Productions and other community theater groups also hold performances in Shore’s auditorium.

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