By MARK JOHNSON, Lansing State Journal
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — For Beck Diamond, dancing wasn’t just a way to make new friends. It was a reason to go to school.
Diamond, now an adult, had truancy issues when she enrolled at Vivian Riddle Middle Magnet School for Visual and Performing Arts in Lansing. One of four children of a single mother, she took little interest in school and often skipped class.
That is, until she started a dance class at Riddle.
“It gave me a reason to stay in school and get up and go to school,” Diamond told the Lansing State Journal. “Going to Riddle gave me an emotional outlet to let off steam.”
Diamond went to Everett High School, where she took dance lessons for four years. Her classes there helped her graduate and continue her college education and a brief stint in the military.
In 2024, the Everett High School Dance Program will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Prior to the milestone, the program continues to grow. The students recently began practicing at a new studio in Everett, and the Lansing School District produced a new documentary about the program which premiered Jan. 29. The film serves to honor a program that has given countless students like Diamond a second home at school.
Karen Sprecher, who was a substitute in the Lansing School District for 33 years, started the after-school club its first year of operation, in 1973. It became a class a year later, and Sprecher taught two sessions. She worked with Kit Carter, head of the district’s performing arts department at the time, who wanted to add dance to the curriculum.
Sprecher began by standing in the halls of Everett, surveying students about their interest in an elective dance class. Classes started to fill up once they were offered.
“I’ve danced my whole life in a private studio and majored in dance at Michigan State University,” said Sprecher, also a founding member of studio Happendance. “I wanted to be a teacher, but I never imagined being able to teach dance. No school had dance in its curriculum at the time.
The same is true today: Everett is one of the few schools in the state to offer dance as part of its curriculum. Today, students start at the Dwight Rich School of the Arts in Lansing and move on to Everett.
Almost 50 years later, the program continues to grow. He recently moved to a new room in Everett with large windows that bathe the studio in light. It has survived an era of education where arts programs are among the first cuts to shrinking budgets.
Clara Martinez now runs Everett’s dance program, teaching five classes a week between Everett and Dwight Rich. The program attracts 150 to 200 students per year.
Martinez views dance as a field of academic study and research. She teaches her students different styles, from modern to jazz to West African, asking students to engage their bodies and the space around them.
She also uses dance to help students understand other academic areas. One example is the “I Am” project, a collaboration with the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, in which students use dance to share their experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dance is a perfect addition to any curriculum, she said.
“It helps create a more balanced, more evolved, more cultured person,” Martinez said. “If you feel like you have something to say, but you’re not being outspoken, dancing is a way for you to figure out what you want your voice to be, what you want your voice to say.”
This year’s Everett dancers find solace in the school’s new studio, learning a discipline they can use to express themselves, motivate themselves, or escape the stressors of everyday life.
On a recent Tuesday, Devin Carter danced with 14 other junior and senior girls from Everett’s Senior Dance Company to the likes of Beyoncé and Prince. She has loved dance as a form of expression for as long as she can remember.
“I’ve always danced around the house all my life,” she said.
Carter first learned about the dance program when she was in 7th grade and looked forward to auditioning for advanced classes as a freshman.
Dance company senior Tasha Gaines is always looking forward to class on tough school days. It not only gives her a voice, but a community to come back to.
“Dancing is something I could never give up,” she said. “It means a lot to me and I wouldn’t want to give it up.”
Diamond never gave up either. She participated in dance throughout school, then worked with Happendance and a Lansing Community College show during her junior and senior years, helping with choreography.
Everett’s program eventually steered her towards college.
“That became the goal,” Diamond said. “To go to higher education because I could continue dancing there.”
After a stint at Western Michigan University interrupted by financial difficulties, Diamond joined the military for three years, then re-enrolled at the University of Washington and started dancing again.
Today, she lives in Washington, where she runs a non-profit organization, Meander Dance Collective. The group provides performance opportunities for adult dancers and is now introducing the dance to local schools.
She recently wrote a short essay on the importance of dance in school as a way to organize her thinking on the subject. Among its benefits, she writes, is the sense of self-confidence it instills:
“In a society that deems some people more worthy than others of taking up space, dance is an intervention in those internalized feelings of worthlessness,” she writes. “Every time our children play, they practice presence and take up space.”
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