Join us in saluting dance humanitarians making a real difference
Generosity permeates the dance education industry. You don’t have to look far to see a studio owner absorbing tuition costs for a needy student, a teacher missing a family gathering to attend an important rehearsal, or studio families stepping up to help another family in distress. In one studio, a charity fundraising effort raises thousands; in another, a child always clad in torn tights finds a new pair in her dance bag. We dance, and we care.
Dance Studio Life founded the Generous Heart Awards to recognize individuals and organizations that take this caring to the nth degree. Past Generous Heart recipients started dance programs for children in developing countries, taught tap to incarcerated youth, led socially committed college dance majors on dance-based missions, and more. This year’s recipients are committed to equally honorable causes, and have sacrificed of themselves to help dancers in ways both big and small.
Read on to see how these dance humanitarians are enriching, expanding—and, literally, saving—the lives of countless children and adults.
Dancers Against Cancer Organizers: Personal Stories Move Organizers to Action
Michelle Colon & Noah Lands
It all started with a dancer named Marissa.
Marissa Parks had competed on Kids Artistic Revue stages since childhood. By 2011, the bubbly 24-year-old was working part-time for the company. Then something shocking happened: Parks was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. A year later, she was gone.
Parks’ death jolted everyone at Kids Artistic Revue (KAR), including CEO Noah Lands. Lands started holding fundraisers in Parks’ memory, but soon he became dissatisfied with donating to cancer research organizations: he wanted to help people directly. In 2013 he created Dancers Against Cancer, a charity funded by KAR, and hired KAR assistant competition director Michelle Colon to run it.
Dance Studio Life is proud to honor Lands and Colon with a shared Generous Heart Award. In just six years, the charity they administer has raised—and given away—more than $1 million in unrestricted cash grants to nearly 60 dance teachers, studio owners, dance students and parents, choreographers, and professional dancers battling cancer.
“I have developed an entirely different passion: helping people at their darkest time.” —Michelle Colon
Lands estimates that around half of that $1 million was contributed by private dance studios (or Hope Studios) that hold fundraisers for DAC. The other half came from special events, including the annual Industry Dance Awards (see “A Community Takes Care of Its Own,” December 2017), and bucket passing at KAR and Rainbow competitions.
A former studio owner who still teaches part time, Colon never expected to run a charity; dance has always been her passion. But through DAC, she says, “I have developed an entirely different passion: helping people at their darkest time.”
She’s thrilled when people use her as a resource, calling her with cancer treatment questions or tagging her online. On Dance Teacher Network or other online groups, Colon says, “People will write, ‘Please pray for my student diagnosed with cancer,’ and then four other people tag me. I love that, because we can help.”
What’s next for DAC? For one thing, the organization hopes to keep increasing its visibility in the dance community through its partnerships with celebrity dancers. “The Instagram-famous dancers and Disney dancers bring us a whole new reach with younger kids,” Lands says. “Maddie Ziegler has millions of followers. Just one tweet about us is huge.”
Lands and Colon make a good team. “His vision is endless,” Colon says. “I love that.” Lands, for his part, values Colon’s emotional strength and personal touch with the Hope Stories, or grantees. “I’m great at coming up with good ideas and helping to get the campaigns and fundraisers going,” he says. “She is really good at dealing with the people that we’re helping.”
Colon’s strength stems from life experience: her father has battled cancer since 2008. “He is my ‘why,’ ” Colon says. “He has so much fight in him. And I want to do more for people who are suffering. I want them to know it’s not a death sentence.”
For Lands, the “why” continues to be a young woman who died too soon.
“I keep Marissa’s memory fresh in my mind,” Lands says. “Every time I get a little tired, I remember her. Dancers Against Cancer—and the larger it gets, the more people we can help—makes her life important.”
Em’s Spotlight: Letting New Dancers Shine
In the 15 years since she was blindsided by tragedy, Vicki Silverman has brought thousands of people joy—and found some for herself.
The Kansas City, Missouri, native lost her 19-year-old daughter, Emily, in a car crash in March 2003, but Em’s Spotlight—the dance education program Silverman founded later that year to serve children living in Kansas City’s urban core who have limited opportunities to dance—was born from the experience, funded in part with money Emily had saved to start her own dance studio someday.
“I’m not a dancer,” Silverman admits. “That was my daughter.” But because dance had meant so much to Emily, Silverman, a former school teacher, was determined to share it with students and families whose incomes and access were limited.
When Dance Studio Life profiled Silverman in 2015 (see “Lighting the Way“), Em’s Spotlight was offering eight free programs serving roughly 600 novice dance students annually. While the numbers have fluctuated from year to year, the basic structure hasn’t. Em’s Spotlight’s Dancing Through the Summer eight-week programs, which include classes capped by a recital, have no fixed address: the program’s dance teachers come to students at schools and churches. (Some senior citizens and people with special needs also take classes offered by the organization.) Em’s Spotlight provides teachers, costumes, shoes, and snacks. Silverman is the sole administrator.
“It’s amazing, when you have a passion and program that works, what gets done. The kids love their costumes, their recital, their experience.” —Vicki Silverman
Classes are run by a lead teacher, often a high school or college student, and a young dance aide, working on a tight timeline and bare-bones budget. Teachers have approximately 14 classes to teach recital choreography while Silverman wrangles photos and creates costumes out of inexpensive odds and ends and accessories. Lately, recitals have featured more store-bought costumes, donated from local studios and costume companies, although “quite often we get the costumes that haven’t sold, so sometimes they’re XXL or XXS,” Silverman says, adding that her sister lends a hand with the many alterations. “To get costumes to fit a range of kids takes a lot of organization—we never know what we’re getting.”
Finding funding to keep the program going, however, remains Silverman’s biggest challenge by far. “We have lots of people who want us, but we don’t have the funds to do it,” she says. “I’d like to have enough money in the budget to hire more people and a director. If something happens to me, that’s the end of the program.” She says that because of its size and its $85,000 to $90,000 budget, Em’s Spotlight doesn’t attract bigger foundations. “We’re constantly getting the $1,000 donations,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful, but that’s a lot of $1,000 donations to get.
“If I knew what we had to do before we started,” she jokes, “I would never have started.”
She doesn’t sound sorry. Although she recently turned 62 and expected to be retired and playing bridge by now, the universe seems to have had bigger plans. “I really think this program was meant to be,” she says. “It’s amazing, when you have a passion and program that works, what gets done. The kids love their costumes, their recital, their experience.”
And the emotional rewards are plentiful. “The kids give us back so much. They’re so funny and so appreciative; most of the parents are appreciative too,” she says. “It’s just so fun to see these kids change—they start out saying, ‘I can’t do that,’ but by the time they’re onstage, they feel so excited by what they’re going to do. They come offstage smiling, saying, ‘I did it!’ ”
Patti Rutland Jazz: Making the Most of a Second Chance
Dance studio owner Patti Rutland retired in 2003, but that didn’t last long. By 2005 she had dusted off her teaching shoes and gone back to work. Today Patti Rutland Jazz is an umbrella organization that includes a professional jazz dance company of 12 dancers and 4 apprentices, a dance studio serving 350 students, and BEYONDance, a dance outreach program.
When Dance Studio Life profiled Rutland in December 2015 (see “Reaching Out With Jazz”), her growing outreach program was already the largest in Alabama, serving 6,800 children, many of whom were underserved urban youth. Today the program provides classes to more than 10,000 public preschool, elementary, and middle school students, along with adults at the Vaughn-Blumberg Center who have intellectual disabilities. Along with dance technique, classes focus on dance appreciation, rhythm, health skills, and choreography, and are taught by the professional dancers of the PRJ company.
“I feel like in the scheme of life, I gave so little and I gained so much.” —Patti Rutland
With a waiting list of seven additional school districts, Rutland believes that by 2020 the program could easily be teaching 25,000 kids—if the running-on-donations-and-prayers program could afford to hire enough company dancers to serve as educators.
In February, outreach educators threw a Valentine’s Day dance for fifth graders in one elementary school. “The confidence and the joy I saw was amazing,” says Rutland, adding that the little kids had as much fun as teens at a prom. “They were speaking the same language, and it was a language of love and joy,” she says. “That’s sort of the message that’s driven me for 40 years: being enriched by our diversity and working together.”
Rutland, who retired for good this year, believes deeply in the lasting impact of the arts and dance. She has named Christina Green, a longtime PRJ dancer and outreach program educator, as her successor at Patti Rutland Jazz, and plans to spend her retirement advocating for the arts as a public speaker, actor, and choreographer. “Dance is discipline. Dance teachers play an important part in a child’s life,” says Rutland, recalling how she learned not only dance, but table manners and so much more, many years ago at her first Dance Educators of America conference.
That advocacy has always been central to the mission of Patti Rutland Jazz; in addition to her outreach program, many kids are on scholarship at her studio. “The art moves people in a way that’s so profound that we can’t understand it,” Rutland says.
“I feel like in the scheme of life, I gave so little and I gained so much,” she says, recalling when her outreach students set a Guinness World Record in November 2014 for largest hip-hop dance, and other special moments in her 40-year dance education career. “I don’t think about anything I did; I think about what the kids did. It was so much love and so much fun, I don’t remember the work of it at all.”