Concrete-tiled floors work in a pinch for the makeshift dance studio. Each week, excited children file into a spare room with cinderblock walls to practice tap, step, and hip-hop routines.
It started with a bunch of dance shoes waiting for a teacher. Three years ago came Rachel Brown, ’14.
Brown was a pioneer at the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood. When she first visited, the site wasn’t even a partner with the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. But Brown saw the potential to build and grow the after-school dance offerings as part of her four-year commitment to civic engagement in the city as a Bonner Scholar.
“I had to go there for a solid year before they knew I was there to stay,” Brown says. “I’ll come in sometimes not having slept the night before, not really ready to deal with all of it, but as soon as I walk in I’m reminded why I am there.”
At the site, Brown and the students who have followed her help with homework, supervise library hours and gym, and lead discussion groups. And then there’s the hip-hop.
“It just kept going back to that — using hip-hop as a tool for social change,” says Brown. “It wasn’t my intention at first. I’m really in love with the culture. I know there’s a lot of power in it. A lot of conversations we started in the mentoring program would go back to artists or people in the mainstream.”
That natural flow to hip-hop fits well with Brown’s dance minor and arts management concentration. She also designed an interdisciplinary major in social entrepreneurship and has created a business plan for an idea that combines her vision into something she calls Hip Hope. Ultimately she wants to create opportunities for youth through hip-hop and pursue her own passion for performance.
“She’s an amazing dancer all the way around,” says Isaiah Bailey, ’13, her former co-teacher. “I’m just someone who has an interest in it. But I saw the dance class as a way to open up other opportunities.
“I was able to talk about gang life and the different types of groups that are going to be out there recruiting people in different points of their life,” he says. “Being able to teach children about the importance of associating yourself with the right kinds of people and the dangers of associating yourself with groups they might want to avoid.”
One of the biggest challenges for the dance program has been the tiled flooring. It’s harder to teach techniques on the wrong kind of floor, but last spring saw new movement in solving the problem.
Both Bailey and Brown received awards that they’ve dedicated to helping install new floors, mirrors, bars, and a sound system that doesn’t depend on portable speakers and iPhones. Bailey’s came in the form of the Debbie Barkley Spirit Award he received from the Office of the Chaplaincy. It comes with a $500 donation to a chosen charity. And Brown submitted a proposal for a Coca Cola and Family Dollar competition for Boys and Girls Clubs across the country.
Brown’s proposal was one of 30 finalists out of 500 submissions for the grand prize of a $10,000 Pay It Forward grant. But the notification that she was a finalist landed in her junk mail folder and she found out only four days before a two-week public voting period ended. Even with a tight deadline, she was able to rally support and marshal enough votes to receive one of the $5,000 runner-up grants.
“I’m excited to build up the dance studio,” Brown says. “It’s not as safe a facility now to dance tap and hip-hop. It’s slippery and students spin and fall easily. The right floor will help with that.”
Brown hopes to get the new studio installed during her senior year.
“It would be a good first step,” she says. “The legacy I want to leave is a dance studio.”