Story by Susan Lee
“Who wants to play an instrument?” Clifford Rawson asks a group of East San Jose second graders. Hands shoot up around the room. A few minutes later, the children are experimenting with Rawson’s electric piano. A few minutes after that, they’re trying out their first pliés.
“They’re just so enthusiastic,” Rawson marvels. “And for most of them, this is the first time they’ve even had a music or a dance lesson.”
Two years ago, Ballet San Jose began its Education and Outreach program to help disadvantaged schools realize that ballet is for everyone. “Their music and arts programs had been slashed,” Rawson says. “So we decided to try and fill the gap.”
Rawson, the Education and Outreach Coordinator and a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, handles the music side of the program. Beth Ann Namey, a former Ballet San Jose Soloist, teaches dancing. Rawson and Namey travel to four elementary schools and two middle schools in East San Jose. The schools are selected for their low standardized test scores and their high percentage of children who qualify for the free lunch program. Ninety-four percent of the students are minorities.
“We really wanted to reach a broad range of kids who may not have had access to the arts at all,” Rawson says.
The hour-long Music and Motion class introduces first, second, and third graders to the basics of rhythm, melody, and ballet. “I’ll play music they know first, like Star Wars,” Rawson says. “Then I’ll move on to marches, waltzes, and the different instruments in the orchestra. Beth Namey will talk about ballet. How old is ballet? Why has it lasted so long? She’ll have the children do tendus or sway like trees in the wind.”
Afterwards, Rawson will invite interested students to study at Ballet San Jose for eighteen weeks – for free. “We had fifty children for the First Step program this year. We also started an Invited Performances program to give students and their families the chance to see The Nutcracker for free. It was so popular that we’re continuing it with our upcoming performance of Cinderella.”
Other outreach programs have been equally successful, such as a ten-week after-school class at Horace Mann elementary school. At the end of the session, the students have a recital for their family and friends.
For older kids, Rawson and Namey give presentations on ballet in school cafeterias or gyms. “We’ll have some of our trainees come in and do a barre or some partnering with fancy lifts. Then we’ll talk about how to become a professional dancer.”
Rawson is especially proud of a recent partnership with the San Francisco Autism Society. “We were able to offer a sensory friendly dress rehearsal of The Nutcracker for children with developmental challenges. They often have a hard time sitting still or being quiet, but they’re very musical! It was the first time most of them had been able to go to a performance with their families.”
Last year, Ballet San Jose’s Outreach program reached more than 4,000 students. This year? Over 5,600. “We’re growing the program quickly,” Rawson says. “We have big plans.”
Interested in helping the program get even bigger? Just go to the Ballet San Jose website and click on “Donate.”