The dance class begins like any other. Neck rolls, shoulder rolls, deep bends, and leg lunges – all designed to warm up the 16 dancers gathered for an afternoon dance session.
Soon the dancers, mostly boys between the ages of 12 and 18, will learn dance sequences that will be put together and practiced to music.
“It’s okay if you mess up,” said teacher Junie Kenworthy. “We’re going to go over it many times, so you’ll get it eventually.”
But this class is unlike most dance lessons – the four security guards leaning against the walls are reminders of that. All the students here are youths who have been convicted of crimes and are serving sentences at the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center.
The class is one of two offered each week at the center by teachers from Kennedy Dancers, a professional dance company based in Jersey City. In 2009, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts awarded the company a certificate of excellence for its work at the detention center.
“The kids all train here, and are mostly from inner city groups.” – Diane Dragone
The class is part of the center’s effort to give the youths a more balanced educational experience than incarcerated youth had access to in the past, and is among several initiatives the troupe has introduced to Hudson County since its inception in 1976.
Dance, with an inner city focus
Holding upwards of 30 dance classes a week, Kennedy Dancers is a community-oriented dance school that holds professional-level dance lessons. Featuring the Kennedy Dancers Professional Repertory Company, a troupe of eight paid professional dancers are the core of the company, although many of the company’s public performances also highlight emerging talent from throughout Hudson County. Most of these young dancers comprise are members of Kennedy’s Inner City Youth Jr. Company made up of 12 teenage dancers between the ages of 11 and 19.
“The kids all train here, and are mostly from inner city groups. They learn the repertoire as part of a scholarship,” explained Dragone, who also choreographs several of the company’s dance pieces.
Although, Dragone and company offer classes in almost every style of dance, a relatively new and trendy style called Zumba is a favorite. Combining world rhythms like salsa, meringue, African, and cumbia, the high-energy style is as much a workout as it is a dance. According to the company’s web site, the music “leads you to each rhythm and becomes a super weight loss program that isn’t measured by how well you dance but by how much you move your body.”
A New Jersey-certified Zumba instructor since 2010, Dragone said the classes are well worth the commitment. “It really burns a lot of calories,” she said. “It came from South America maybe two or three years ago, and has really caught hold. People absolutely love it.”
Other dance styles taught at the Kennedy dance school, at 79 Central Ave. in the Jersey City Heights, range from the traditional (ballet, tap, modern) to the contemporary (hip-hop, jazz, Zumba). As is typical at many dance companies, other classes – like yoga and gymnastics – that hone core strength and other skills are also taught at Kennedy.
The revenue from dance classes finance the company, which frees the company from having to depend on funding from government sources, Dragone said.
“Giving dance classes is the way dance companies can stay afloat without depending on grants,” she said.
This, however, does not mean the company shuns public or private funding from outside sources. The nonprofit company recently received a two-year grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts for its general operating budget. Additional funding comes from the New Jersey Cultural Trust, the PSE&G Foundation, the Scarmolin Trust, the Bank of America Foundation, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, the Puffin Foundation, the Turrell Fund, the Hudson County Office on Ageing, the Lillian Shenck Foundation, and other funding sources.
35th season gala planned
While Kennedy Dancers was technically founded 36 years ago, 2013 is actually the company’s 35th season. Thus, Dragone and the troupe will hold a 35th anniversary gala at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre in October. The event, which is still being planned, with include appearances from past students, in addition to performances from current members of the senior and junior companies and Kennedy alums.
In addition to their ongoing classes, Kennedy Dancers will in July begin a series of a six-week intensive classes from July 9 through August 20. For more information, visit www.KennedyDancers.or or call (201) 659-2190.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.