As a student at Charles R. Drew Middle School in Liberty City, Mary Kerr was never really interested in dancing.
“I was a cheerleader and a sports person and one day my mom tricked me into going to a ballet audition,” Kerr remembers. At the audition, as she realized where she was, Kerr began mimicking the teacher’s unfamiliar movements.
To her surprise, she was quite good.
It just so happened that year, in 2009, a national dance program called AileyCamp was launching its pilot program in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Downtown. One of her teachers suggested that she apply for a spot. Kerr was selected to join the inaugural class, an acceptance that would change the trajectory of her entire life.
“I fell in love with dance,” Kerr explains. “I continued to go every summer since 2009, and then from there I went on to the New School of the Arts.”
Now Kerr, 19, is studying dance at the University of South Florida, and hopes to eventually pursue her masters in choreography and join a professional dance company.
Inspired by Alvin Ailey, a renowned choreographer and dancer who believed that the artform should be available to everyone regardless of race or social status, AileyCamp first started in 1989 to increase access to dance to underserved communities.
Now, almost three decades later, AileyCamps are held all over the country, offering 100 students between the ages of 11 and 14 six weeks of dance instruction free of charge. The children are trained in West African, jazz, modern and ballet and are also coached on personal development, communication, and conflict resolution. At the end of the six weeks the entire class puts on a performance on stage.
For Kerr, AileyCamp Miami was about more than just dancing.
“It allowed me to not only just think about movement but also the message you want the audience to hear. It made me realize that my story is important and it should be heard,” she said.
In its eighth year, AileyCamp Miami has hosted almost seven hundred students throughout their middle school years — an often confusing and difficult phase of life.
“It’s the cognitive development phase, so we’re molding them and giving them the positive vibes to get through the high school years. … it’s a time when you’re still figuring out and finding your way, which is specifically why we work with [middle schoolers],” explained Jairo Ontiveros, director of education and community engagement at the Adrienne Arsht Center, where the program is hosted.
That’s why the program also works to strengthen life skills using positive daily affirmations, nutrition classes, and journaling workshops, which all help build the students’ critical thinking and confidence, Ontiveros explained.
“I’d never been on such a big stage in front of so many people,” admits Gavin Nicholson, 17, who attended AileyCamp when he was 12 years old and again when he was 14. “But when I was dancing, it felt like I was alone and it was an awesome experience.”
Nicholson, who is petite and struggled with bullies in school, was accepted to AileyCamp with very little dance training. The camp’s daily affirmations, personal development, and journaling courses taught Nicholson how to be confident both on the stage and off.
“We learned that we need to respect others, love each other, and have a big heart and be confident in others,” he said.
Now, more than five years after he first attended AileyCamp Miami, Nicholson dances across the stage with ease. He was recently offered a full scholarship to study at the Miami City Ballet and he is well on his way to becoming a professional dancer. He credits his drive and passion to the many lessons he learned at AileyCamp.
“I probably wouldn’t still be a dancer today if I didn’t go to AileyCamp,” he admitted.