On Saturdays at Southside Community Center, dozens of kids run through the door in their leotards, say hello to their mentors and change their shoes as they prepare for a dance lesson through Ballet & Books.
Ballet & Books is a community organization that aims to combine literacy skills and dance to engage students outside of a traditional classroom. It aims to foster excitement for reading through dance classes and one-on-one mentor work and to target diverse communities that ordinarily would not get this opportunity, said Talia Bailes, founder of Ballet & Books.
Before arriving at Cornell University for her freshman year in Fall 2016, Bailes took a gap year in Ecuador and worked with a local dance group. A lifelong dancer, Bailes was inspired by the impact dance could have and wanted to share that with others, she said.
“I feel like dancing provided me, while I was growing up, with a lot of confidence,” Bailes said. “I learned a lot about discipline, hard work, determination and really gained a sense of self.”
Over the summer after her gap year, Bailes assisted with research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, located in Cincinnati. She learned that when kids fall behind in reading before third grade, they will likely stay behind, she said. Bailes, now a senior at Cornell, knew she wanted to combine literacy and dance in a new, unique way, she said.
The program is set up in two sections: “Seeds” and “Sprouts.” “Seeds” are 3– to 5-year-old children, and “Sprouts” are 6– to 10-year-olds. In the “Seeds” class, kids spend an hour in a class taught by student dancers, and many activities throughout the class help incorporate literacy, like writing letters in the air with twirling ribbons. At the end of every class, the group reads a book together. In the “Sprouts” program, students spend 45 minutes in a dance lesson, and then 45 minutes with their mentor, doing activities like scavenger hunts, reading and crafts, Bailes said.
By combining dance with other activities like reading, writing and word games, children are more likely to remain interested, said Olive Onyekwelu, a Ballet & Books mentor. Onyekwelu, a junior at Cornell, has been a mentor in the program for two semesters. Each of the 16 children enrolled in the “Sprouts” program is paired with a mentor who works with them one-on-one every class.
“One day, my mentee really just didn’t feel like working on reading skills,” Onyekwelu said. “So, I chose a book about yoga. My mentee and I agreed that for each page she would read, we could try out the yoga pose. You find a way to make it work.”
The program has 29 total college and high school students serving as mentors, dance teachers and assistants and elected board members, Bailes said.
Ballet & Books is free for all participants. Leotards, shoes and snacks are all paid for by grants, donors and Cornell support, and instructors are all volunteers. Local organizations, like Pandora Dance Troupe, provide donations that help keep the program free to students. At most dance studios, one could expect to pay between $60 and $150 a month for tuition. The program aims to serve kids that would not ordinarily be able to take dance lessons because of these expenses. The program would not be able to function if it were not for the volunteers, Bailes said.
A central focus of Ballet & Books is connecting local college students with their community, Bailes said. Most mentors come from Cornell, with a few from Ithaca College and local high schools.
“It can be really refreshing to come here and get away from my studies for a minute and immerse myself in the Ithaca community,” Onyekwelu said.
Parents of Ballet & Books students also value the partnerships between their children and their mentors.
“I love that my daughter has a chance to glance into what her future could be like and that she has so many great role models around her,” said May Yaelin, the mother of Supantra, a “Sprouts” dancer.
Supantra started dancing a year ago, as she was entering second grade. Yaelin said she received an email from Tompkins County advertising Ballet & Books and thought it could be a great thing for her daughter. Supantra had experienced developmental delays socially, and Ballet & Books has helped, Yaelin said.
“The program focuses on so many good things for [Supantra], like her confidence, healthy habits, physical health and positive body image,” Yaelin said.
It is also important that the students enjoy what they’re doing, Bailes said.
“When I am dancing, it feels like I’m dreaming,” 8-year-old Supantra said.
Bailes said she finds it so rewarding to see students grow and come out of their shells. One of her greatest memories with Ballet & Books occurred last spring when all of the kids were onstage at Cornell. One young student got on stage and danced, and Bailes later received an email that said the student’s sister cried while watching because she was so proud of her. Emails like this are common, Bailes said.
Ballet & Books is currently focusing on national expansion, aiming to grow beyond the original Ithaca chapter. In addition to developing chapters in New Jersey and Florida, the program aims to expand further, Bailes said.
Ithaca College senior Kevin Swann is the current marketing coordinator for Ballet & Books.
“This semester, we’re really working on compiling and sharing the resources we’ve gathered with other communities, so people in other areas can start their own Ballet & Books programs in their area,” Swann said.
The Ithaca chapter of Ballet & Books recruits new mentors every semester and can be contacted on their website.
“When you get to college, you always have this sense of needing to find your place,” Onyekwelu said. “I stumbled upon this program by accident and found a family.”