There’s no contest: the most fun dance performance of the summer is consistently National Dance Institute’s Event of the Year, held at LaGuardia High School. Established in 1976 by Jacques d’Amboise, NDI brings dance into the lives of public school children through free classes and programs that build self-confidence and a love and appreciation of the arts. Led by Ellen Weinstein’s artistic direction, they currently partner with 31 schools in the New York City metro area, working with around 5000 kids every week, and recently led a cultural exchange in China.
This year’s program, directed by Mary Kennedy, was called The Big Easy: NDI Celebrates New Orleans, and each dance explored a different aspect of the city. Through learning the dances, the kids had the opportunity to learn more about the rich culture of New Orleans itself: it’s history, traditions, food, music. In the prologue, the program opened with rare video footage of Peter Gennaro, a Louisiana-born dancer and choreographer who learned to dance in New Orleans. In the video, Gennaro dances on “The Perry Como Show,” performing his signature strut. He comes across as a man who clearly loves what he does, infusing his movement with a spirit of humor and personality. The video was an ideal introduction to a program filled with a similar spirit, and when the NDI dancers entered, to the exciting music of a live orchestra and chorus, the transition was seamless.
The program continued with 14 more works, each one telling part of the New Orleans story. Jackson Square (choreographed by Noah Racey) began with a group of dancers tap dancing and holding out their hats for coins, pantomiming the activity of the many artists who frequent the square. The rest of the dancers in the work gradually joined this group, building to illustrate the vibrancy and energy of the place. In The River is Waiting(choreographed by Kelly Buwalda), dancers dressed in flowing costumes illustrated the nature of the Mississippi River and its importance to the city. In the dances Galatoire’s Kitchen (choreographed by Kay Gayner) and Crawfish Etouffee (choreographed by Ellen Weinstein), several of the younger dancers dressed as chefs and crawfish in a fun and humorous cat-and-mouse chase scene that celebrated the famous restaurant and New Orleans dish. Other works looked at everything from Saints football to Louis Armstrong to Mardi Gras festivities. And the dances did not only focus on the fun aspects of New Orleans. In Hurricane Katrina (choreographed by Kay Gayner), the dancers explored the loss and suffering caused by the 2005 storm, portraying the devastation with sensitivity and emotion. Learning about a tragedy like this through the arts provides a new way of understanding and processing it, a different perspective.
It makes sense that it should be children who are the most able to show us how happy dance can make a person, whether that person is the one dancing or the one watching someone else experience the pure joy of the art form. In the introductory number, the full cast of over 200 kids, dressed in colorful and creative costumes, runs diagonally across the stage, each dancer leaping into the air when they reach the center. All of the kids jump in their own way, throwing their arms into the air in celebration. The excitement and energy they bring to their movement is immediately palpable and infectious, and it is impossible to watch without smiling. The kids are not all trying to look the same, nor are they competing over technique. The focus here is on positivity, teamwork, and enthusiasm. In a program that celebrates diversity and personality, they are working together to share their dance experience with us, an experience they might not have had if it weren’t for NDI.