by Joan F. Smith
Most competition dancers spend grueling hours in the studio learning choreography and perfecting routines with the hopes of both dancing and scoring well. But at Clarion [PA] Center for the Arts, directed by BreAnna Charis Liberto, competition dancers have a loftier goal: raising money for charity.
“The arts are supposed to be used to make a difference,” says Liberto, who is teaching her students by example. Each season her studio partners with a local charitable organization or cause, and prepares a competition dance that corresponds to the cause’s message of hope. Competition dancers gather pledges from family, friends, and community members who agree to donate money based on the score the dance receives at competition. The higher the score, the more money raised for the cause.
“They aren’t just trying to win. They’re trying to get those platinums because they know they’ll be able to raise more money.” —BreAnna Charis Liberto
The idea for this unique, pledge-based approach to competition coalesced slowly in Liberto’s mind. In 2013, while choreographing a piece about children in poverty, Liberto wondered how she could use the dance to make a real, tangible difference. A thought came to her: could her dancers use the dance to raise funds for the cause the dance was addressing? It turns out they could.
Liberto partnered with Compassion International, and that season’s competition dance raised about $2,000 for children in poverty. In subsequent years, Clarion Center for the Arts has supported causes such as a local 32-year-old woman battling breast cancer, the local Center for Community Resources for mental health, and Pennsylvania Wounded Warriors, Inc. Corresponding dances were about cancer, depression, and veterans.
This process is a positive competitive challenge for Liberto’s students. Because a pledge may garner $3 for achieving a high silver, but $5 for a gold, “the more effort students put into their dancing, the more funds they can raise for issues they really care about,” Liberto says, adding that efforts have raised a total of $4,000 to date.
The dance is entered in just a single competition, yet it is also performed at a number of community events throughout the year where Liberto gives an introductory talk that puts the dance into context and provides exposure for the charity.
This year’s dance, a production number choreographed by instructor Janet Amoroso, one of five competition numbers the studio will field this year, is about young kids going through the foster system and then being adopted, a “heartwarming story,” Liberto says, that she has personally witnessed—her parents have served as foster parents since 2013. Families can pledge to any or all of the studio’s numbers, with the total sum of donations going to a local foster organization.
The process is incredibly engaging and fulfilling for Liberto, who takes music that inspires her and matches it to a charity that follows the music’s mood or theme. Most important, Liberto says, the pledge-based approach to competing gives her students something meaningful to work toward. “It incentivizes them, and motivates them for the right reasons—they aren’t just trying to win,” she says. “They’re trying to get those platinums because they know they’ll be able to raise more money.”
Through connecting competition to causes, Liberto seeks to “expose students to what’s going on in the world and what they can do as artists to help,” she says. By playing roles onstage such as neglected children or adoptive parents, she hopes students might better understand the magnitude of those situations.
“We won’t take action to make a difference unless we can understand and empathize with the people who need our help,” Liberto says. “And empathy leads to action.”
Published author Joan F. Smith is lead faculty of creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University and a longtime instructor at Dance Express in South Easton, Massachusetts.