Partnering with Strong Women: It’s Enough to Make a Girl Dance

Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.

While many of my Education department colleagues spend their days enamored with smiling young children or playing with families aboard Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, my job here involves a far surlier crowd: TEENAGERS. [They’re a demographic that puzzles many—so much so that the Skirball recently offered a “Teenagers: Wonder Years or Worry Years” parenting workshop for moms and dads needing some guidance.]

In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

This past year’s residency focused on the topic of empowering women and girls worldwide as explored in the recent Skirball exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Working with renowned choreographer Robin Conrad, six members of the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM) Drill Team developed a dance performance based on their visit to the exhibition. They also went on a field trip to serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), one of the Skirball’s many community partners, which provides housing and support for the city’s ever-growing population of homeless women.

Choregrapher Robin Conrad (at right) guides rehearsals at WESM.

Choregrapher Robin Conrad (at right) guides rehearsals at WESM.

Among the many sobering statistics shared by the DWC: more than 50,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, and over 32% of them are adult women, the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. It’s a startling and important fact, and I have to say that until I began this project these women felt pretty far away. Not anymore.

Accustomed to cheer routines and acrobatic moves, the six young women and their teacher Anne Scatolini worked diligently with an open mind, challenging themselves to rethink and re-imagine their own definitions of dance, and interpreting the stories of women they had met at the DWC in their choreography.

Through collaboration, journaling, and improvisation, Robin and the students developed a moving and empathetic performance this past February. The students were not only invested in this project for themselves, each other, and their school, but they were inspired by their genuine connection with the homeless women whose stories they had heard first-hand. We invited women from the DWC along with parents, friends, family, and local schools to come see the show Robin and the girls put together. Yes, the culminating experience resulted in beautiful and precise dances, but I think the audience’s positive—and tearful—reaction to the show was more telling: it signified the way we had all been impacted by the girls’ journey.

After their performance, me on stage (second from left) with three of the exceptional residency participants: Imani, Lyric, and Amoni. It has been such a pleasure getting to know them, sharing sandwiches, and soliciting fashion tips from them. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

After their performance, me on stage (second from left) with three of the exceptional residency participants: Imani, Lyric, and Amoni. It has been such a pleasure getting to know them, sharing sandwiches, and soliciting fashion tips from them. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

Months later, on May 18, we all had a chance to continue our relationship with the DWC when Skirball staff and WESM students volunteered at Women’s Day in the Park. This annual event is a joint effort by local organizations, including the DWC, to offer women from Skid Row a day for themselves. Pedicures, dance lessons, as well as health and legal services were all available free of charge. We passed out bags of toiletries that had been compiled and decorated by first and second grade students during their Noah’s Ark tour—all part of our Build a Better World initiative, whereby little ones get involved in a local service learning project after their visit to the ark. We also served lunch to the participants and encouraged them to write wishes to women in need—akin to how visitors added their messages to the Wish Canopy ceiling installation in Women Hold Up Half the Sky—to hang up at the DWC.

WESM student and residency participant Miranda (in white shirt and jeans) passes out toiletries at Women’s Day in the Park last month. That’s me in the sunglasses looking like a high school student.

WESM student and residency participant Miranda (in white shirt and jeans) passes out toiletries at Women’s Day in the Park last month. That’s me in the sunglasses looking like a high school student.

Between salad scoops and chatter with the teens about prom dresses, college plans, and manicures (we share an obsession with nail art), I began to understand that this residency helped build a community for these young women based on values and ideals, including the key message of the exhibition: that educated and empowered women and girls can change the world. And it didn’t end at lunch. A couple of the girls hope to volunteer at the Skirball over the summer while others plan to continue to volunteer at the DWC. At their own school, the girls also took an important vow: not to judge fellow female students in order to encourage a school culture of acceptance and achievement for both boys and girls. Their ongoing dedication and commitment to advocating for the needs of women and girls both inspire and humble me.

When high school students are asked to problem-solve, work as a team, and venture out of their comfort zones, they have the potential to affect positive change around them, even if they seem skeptical at first. Through volunteering and heightened awareness of pressing matters related to women and girls, this small group of WESM teens continue to strengthen their bonds with individuals from seemingly disparate communities across the city.

This coming fall, a new residency begins, and we are turning our attention to themes of civic engagement through the exhibition Creating the United States (opening at the Skirball in October), which explores the creation and legacy of three of our nation’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Who knows what connections students will make this time around? Applications for the new residency are accepted through June 30, so apply soon!

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