Ailey's 'Revelations' changes classroom

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2003

NEWARK, N.J. Nine dancers stand in a tight wedge formation, heads thrown back, ready for their opening steps. They are a study in concentration until one smacks his lips loudly and the others dissolve into giggles.

I said I wanted you to think about kissing the ceiling, not actually kiss it,'' says their instructor.

She is Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, director of arts and education for the Alvin Ailey Dance Found-ation and a former dancer with the company. Her students are not professionals but sixth and seventh graders rehearsing at Newark's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School, as part of Revelations: An Interdiscip-linary Approach,'' a weeklong program based on Alvin Ailey's signature dance, Revelations.''

Done in tandem with the group's American tour, the four-year-old program exposes children to new ways of thinking and expressing themselves through dance, poetry and history. At the end of each week, the students give a small performance for the instructors, and are invited to see a live performance of Revel-ations.''

This year the program toured nine cities. Newark is the last.

The curriculum is rigorous, with nightly writing assignments and much choreography to invent and learn.

It's basically a crash course for these kids, who mostly come from poor families,'' says the school's music teacher, Francine Miller.

It exposes them to something that kids in other schools get on a regular basis. They need this stuff in order to be whole people.''

For many of the youngsters, the program is the only exposure to modern dance. The Ailey instructors hope to spark something in the students that will begin a lasting interest in the arts.

After a brief warm-up that includes a lot of giggling and wise cracks, the youngsters sit down on floor and Thomas-Schmitt turns to the Word Wall,'' a big sheet of paper on which the children have written words they associate with dance: beat, ballet, tap, rhythm.

Let's add 'fun,''' Thomas-Schmitt says.

It's already there,'' a little girl points out.

Well, we're going to add it again, bigger,'' Thomas-Schmitt responds, writing FUN in capital red letters.

Then the instructors read some of the poems the students did as homework assignments.

In one, titled Dancing,'' Angel Howard writes: When I dance I flow, I practically glow. Just to give you a secret, I feel like I'm the queen of the show.''

As they separate into groups for I've Been Buked,'' the first part of Revelations,'' Steven Douglas, a thin seventh-grader with an intense, slightly mischievous gaze, hands Thomas-Schmitt a poem he brought in for her.

Written by Douglas and his sister, Tiffany, it describes their feelings after the death of their parents.

I'm fighting for the day I'll get through it all,'' runs the refrain.

Struggle and resistance are key components of Revel-ations,'' which is choreographed to a series of spirituals and based on Ailey's childhood experiences in a Baptist church in Texas.

These plies are heavy, like you're being pushed down,'' says Thomas-Schmitt, explaining the opening choreography in which the dancers take a wide stance and sink low while bending their knees. But are you going to let someone push you down?''

No,'' the class choruses.

So there's resistance. You must put feeling into your movement.''

The children dutifully retry their plies.

Thomas-Schmitt reminds them not to forget their next assignment, a poem they will use to choreograph a new dance.

Asked what he is going to write about, Douglas doesn't hesitate.

I'm going to stick to my usual subject my parents.''

The Alvin Ailey Dance Co. will perform at Newark's New Jersey Performing Arts Center, through Sunday.

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