Education
9:25 am
Mon August 19, 2013

Troubled youth turn to dance for a second chance

I'm a huge fan of dance. Tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop - you name it, I like it. I'm not ashamed to say my Tuesday nights are devoted to two hours of "So You Think You Can Dance," with a healthy amount of popcorn thrown in. So when I read this article in yesterday's New York Times, I knew I had to write something about it.

Turns out there's a dance troupe in England that's made up entirely of at-risk teens. None of them have formal dance training, all of them have taken a few too many wrong turns in life. The troubles range from school dropouts to "petty — and not so petty — criminals."

Here's how it works: The youth find their way to Dance United via referrals from schools, parents or social service agencies. This "dance boot camp" is serious business, with the teens training six hours a day, six days a week, for six weeks straight. Some drop out, but, according to the article, the number of those who make it to the final performance is pretty high. And it appears the benefits last far longer than their one night on stage beneath the bright lights:

On average, 7 in 10 make it onto the stage; of those, 8 in 10 return to mainstream education or work, and more than 3 in 4 do not commit offenses or become repeat offenders. One in 10 even goes on to study dance professionally, with one Dance United graduate, Matthew-Jay Pratt, now in his final year at the competitive Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in London.

I admit, when I first read through those numbers, I was pretty surprised. I mean, dance is great and all, but could it really combat recidivism at such a high rate? But then, I thought back to my own dance experience and realized that those results make sense. There was a time when I was dancing six days a week (though more like three hours at a time, not six, but still...) for not just six weeks in a row but for months at at time over a period of about a decade and a half. Sure I learned how to tendu and pirouette and time step my way across the dance floor, but I also learned more intangible qualities like discipline, tenacity and inner strength. While I was building my muscles and coordination, I was also building confidence. Throw in lifts and tricky group combinations, and you're learning how to work well with others. (Not to mention all that rehearsal time fills your day, so there's little if any time to get into mischief.)

My guess is, the kids who went through Dance United called upon similar qualities during their six weeks of dance boot camp. And it's those qualities that may have given them the confidence to go back to school and stick with it this time around, or maybe land a job. Not too shabby for what, on the outside, just looks like a bunch of folks learning how to turn and leap across a dance floor.

Oh but wait, there's more.

It is one of the most original and successful youth engagement programs in Britain, costing its private and public backers about $3,000 per person but saving society an estimated $128,000 in legal costs and welfare benefits, according to New Philanthropy Capital, a research firm that calculates returns for donors to charity.

So my question is: Would something like this work in Michigan?

You can see some of the Dance United dancers in action here. The video called "Why Dance" is a nice primer.

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