MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Everybody Dance LA! helps instill life skills

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

It doesn’t take long to realize there’s something really special happening inside a nondescript building in downtown Los Angeles where Everybody Dance LA! is holding classes.

In Miss Liz’s class, students stare attentively into a floor-to-ceiling mirror to watch themselves as they try to duplicate the cool hip-hop moves their instructor just demonstrated.

“Kick and kick and kick and,” Miss Liz calmly repeats as if it’s on a loop.

Some of the dozen or so students get it rather quickly, while others need more practice, but all seem to really enjoy the movement and the camaraderie that comes with attending the dance classes.

“I came here to teach because it’s a program that understands students’ growth takes time with the students, and really supports the teachers in every way,” said Miss Liz, who has been teaching dance for 11 years total, five at Everybody Dance.

In Natasha Kaneda’s high-energy jazz class there is a liveliness in the room that is infectious.

Down the hall in Miss Dani Furniss’ ballet class, children as young as 4 are dressed in their ballet leotards and slippers and are poised at the barre, with their feet in first position (heels together, with toes turned out until the feet are in a straight line) awaiting instruction. It’s adorableness overload.

While parents sit outside the classrooms, some on their phones, some reading a newspaper and others with their faces pressed against the window as they wait for their children to finish learning the day’s choreography, there’s much more than just dance happening inside the dance studios.

While the children who participate in Everybody Dance LA! are learning high-quality dance techniques, salsa, jazz, ballet, and hip-hop, in actuality, there’s much more going on. Yes, there are fun, welcoming vibes and an inspired team atmosphere, but life skills are also being imparted, which are designed to last a lifetime.

“It has that youth development consciousness first,” said Tina Banchero, EDLA’s after-school artistic manager, and program and artistic director. “Lift youth up. We are imparting life skills, teamwork, discipline, multi-tasking and being your best self. We want to build them up.”

Everybody Dance LA! transforms lives and communities through high-quality dance education in areas around Los Angeles for youth ages 4-19, instilling high expectations and cultivating the lifelong skills of collaboration, discipline and self-expression so the youngsters become confident and engaged participants in their education, career, and community.

Founded in 1999 by Liza Bercovici in memory of her 13-year-old daughter Gabriella Axelrad, who loved to dance, Bercovici’s vision was to bring the joy and impact of dance to low-income communities in Los Angeles. She started with 25 students in the MacArthur Park neighborhood.

Today, Everybody Dance LA! serves more than 4,000 students annually who are taught by professional dancers.

A number of the students have been in the program for a couple of years, some for as many as 14.

Students are provided with dance supplies, including point shoes. They are also afforded tickets to shows, field trips and master classes.

Alexys started attending summer camp dance classes when he was 5. He’s now 11, and likes to “spend time making new friends.”

“I’m taking salsa classes right now because my mom wants me to dance in a quinceañera,” he said.

Samantha started taking dance classes when she was 7. She’s now 13.

“I like the different styles of dance that I get to learn here,” she said. “I also like coming because I get to see my friends.”

Axel, who is 12, has been coming to dance classes for six years.

“I get to learn different dances,” said Axel who is currently in a Salsa 2 class. “I also like the teacher.”

Part of what makes Everybody Dance LA! so special are the teaching artists and the staff who genuinely care.

About 70% of the teaching artists are people of color, according to Banchero, who earned a degree in dance and women’s studies from SUNY at Buffalo and is a professional dancer.

Alexandria Dilks Pandola, 43, has been EDLA’s executive director since June 2022. She came aboard because she “loves what the organization stands for.”

“I love working for performing arts organizations and the people it reaches,” she said. “I get a sense of purpose out of it. This organization opens doors to people who don’t have opportunities.”

When she took the position, Pandola said she “wanted to help” because she sees “so much possibility in young people.”

“I want them to pursue their dreams whether it’s to be a dancer or a doctor,” said Pandola. “These children start at the age of 4 and are with us until they graduate from high school. Some even intern with us.”

A Philadelphia native who received a bachelor’s degree in theater from American University and a master’s of fine arts degree in theater management and producing from Columbia University, Pandola said there is a framework at EDLA that isn’t just about dance.

“We use dance as a tool to transform their lives,” she said. “More than just taking dance. There are so many benefits — both physical and mental. Dance is a release of what’s going on in your life. It’s bigger than us.”

Banchero, 47, is very passionate about the organization’s intent.

“What we’re doing means using this art form as a tool for youth development,” she said. “We want them to develop their highest potential. After school, low-income students are susceptible to early-onset gangs, pregnancy and drugs.

“Here, we require high standards. We expect them to show up. They must be in uniform, be respectful, be on time, be accountable and learn to multitask. I see the transformation every day.”

Since its launch, EDLA, which is currently serving 26 schools, has grown rapidly and expanded to include the In-School, After School, and Summer and Enrichment programs.

Throughout the school year, they bring professional teaching artists to schools across LA. The In-School program is in 30 schools this year.

“We provide dance class once a week in elementary and middle school,” said Pandola, a married mother of three. “At the end of the year, we do a performance for the community and the parents.”

The After School program, which is more intense, operates in two dance studios in low-income neighborhoods in L.A. The program focuses on the technical mastery of dance in a safe and supportive environment.

The program has income requirements and costs $15 a month for families. Some tuition fees vary.

“We want all of the families to know high-quality programming is out there,” said Banchero. “We want everyone to think about giving back $5 or even $500,000. Give extra so another family can have access.”

The summer program, which is at a conservatory level, is an annual week-long summer day camp for new students ages 4-12. The program is offered at EDLA’s Townhouse site in Koreatown near MacArthur Park. Students learn multiple forms of dance each day and present an end-of-camp showing for their parents on Fridays.

The programs are having a positive impact with 94% of students surveyed reporting improved self-esteem, 96% reporting an increased sense of feeling supported by family and community, and 100% of after-school program seniors graduated from high school in June and are expected to attend college in the fall.

There is also a Mentor Match Program where, once a month, children are matched with mentors in various careers. The mentors talk about what a career in college could look like to them. Mentors help them write college essays and offer help in applying for scholarships.

When she thinks about the work that’s being done at Everybody Dance LA!, Pandola said she can’t help but be proud.

“It’s everything to me,” she said. “It gives me such a sense of purpose. It makes me feel really good. I love the work I do.”

“Making a Difference” is a regular feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to newsroom@wavepublication.com.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

 

 

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