There are things in this world more powerful than words. A single look, a shift in weight, a hand, a palm, a finger… they can move you and seduce you. It can make you believe in magic.
Because movement is the most basic form of communication for every human being on the planet… It expresses what a whole bunch of words never could. It expresses the people, the culture, the place they come from: a moving record of our human existence.
But it’s not about how many flips or how many spins or how high or how straight—it’s how far you can stretch your soul… To share, to reinvent, to rediscover… each other. And the common rhythm that unifies us all.
–Jon M. Chu, DS2DIO, the world’s first dance lifestyle channel
These words arrive at the essence of City Dance, a blossoming, new hip-hop dance organization in Peoria, Illinois. It’s a place where founders Tyler and Amanda Relph challenge teens and adolescents to “look beyond yourself and become part of something greater.”
“We want to provide these kids with a safe, encouraging atmosphere where they can come and live out their passions,” says founding president Tyler Relph.
As Carl Cannon, founder of Peoria’s ELITE youth outreach program states, “Too often in a community, the focus is on the problem. Well, City Dance is part of the answer.” And in Peoria, the problem is pressing. At the State of the Schools Address on May 2, 2012, Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan spoke to the Peoria Public Schools’ challenges, including a poverty rate of 74 percent—too high—and a graduation rate of 76.6 percent—too low. In her 2011 address, Dr. Lathan had reported a 90-percent graduation rate, and while much progress is being made across the school system itself, that downward shift is concerning.
And with no mention of the creative arts in the address, City Dance’s mission becomes especially relevant. These underfunded learning experiences often provide the connection that keeps teens and adolescents on track with their education.
The Connecting Point
City Dance looks to provide that connection. City Dance is a nonprofit organization committed to changing lives through dance and arts mentorship programs. Their primary audience is at-risk youth in Peoria and its surrounding communities.
City Dance is working to establish the studio as a safe place where youth can explore their passions and talents in the arts. Every staff member goes through an extensive screening and training process to ensure they will be positive role models for the students. The organization hopes to train and mentor the next generation of leaders who will continue to impact the community long after their time at City Dance is complete.
In addition, City Dance is dedicated to making top-tier talent and resources available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. It plans to bring choreographers to Peoria from across the country to teach classes; an extensive network is already in place to pair students in the Creative Arts Mentorship Program (C.A.M.P.) with professional mentors in the fields of photography, videography, graphic design and more. Unlimited access to dance and C.A.M.P. programs will be offered at just $50 a month, with scholarships available to those who qualify.
Suzette Boulais of ArtsPartners spoke of the enthusiasm she has witnessed in City Dance founders and staff. “They are taking their energy and passions for what they do and matching it with a population they know has potential,” she said. “They want to help raise up the underserved and strengthen Peoria. It is not only a beautiful mission—it is a doable mission. Their mission is a gift to our world.”
Bringing People Together
The staff of five, plus six additional instructors, understands how important their mission is. Each has a story that connects to their craft and empowers them to connect with their students. “Dance was a positive force in my own life when there seemed to be nothing else,” relates Amanda Relph. “It remained as a creative outlet and source of strength as my family and I moved through poverty, job loss, numerous health problems and other issues. There were many days when my anticipation for studio time was the only thing keeping me moving…
“Now, I can look back and know that dance was an invaluable tool for coping and motivation,” she adds. “I am now grateful to have walked through these trials, as I know that my experiences will be a blessing to the students we serve.
Phil Newton, executive director of South Side Mission, says that he and his staff are encouraged by the communitywide vision that City Dance brings to the table. “Dance and music are great equalizers. They are catalysts for bringing people together. The City Dance staff recently visited the Mission and really energized our kids!"
United for Change
Over the month of April, City Dance worked with 4th, 5th and 6th graders in preparation for an end-of-year school performance. After a few weeks of working with them, City Dance instructors were informed that the students’ behavior had never been better. They were listening, respectful and on their best behavior so they could participate in City Dance activities.
TJ Syndram, City Dance’s vice president of marketing and development, elaborates. “To see such significant change in only one month speaks to the impact we will make in the long term. It will be exciting to hear the stories of how City Dance has forever impacted a youth’s life 10 or 20 years down the road. We fully expect to hear that the organization’s mission not only changed someone’s life, but may have saved it.”
“The dance community in general is a very unique community,” says Tyler Relph. “It is almost like a family.” Carl Cannon agrees. He sees the ELITE Program and City Dance working together like a marriage. “They are two parts coming together that are going to be united for a long, long time.”
To connect with City Dance, visit their website at citydancepeoria.org, follow them on Twitter @citydancepeoria, or like them on Facebook.