Ashton Benn (third from right) backstage at a charity dance concert she produced (Mae Haines, courtesy Ashton Benn)

5 Young Dancers Doing Good in 2020

You may know—or have seen on social media—that International Human Rights Day is in December. But did you know December is also Universal Human Rights Month? Communities all over the world designate this time to acknowledge the basic rights of every human, and to celebrate the idea that we all deserve to be treated with dignity.

Such an acknowledgment is especially important now, as people and industries alike come to terms with how they've mistreated certain groups. For its part, the dance world has started having some important conversations about the issues that keep it from being a more equitable space, and young dancers—on social media and in their own lives—have been among the most vocal about activating positive change. At Dance Spirit, we're recognizing Universal Human Rights Month by highlighting five of those young dancers, whose philanthropic efforts are having positive impacts on their communities.

Ashton Benn hosting a charity dance concert raising money to fight homelessness (Mae Haines, courtesy Ashton)

Ashton Benn

After attending a dance program in San Francisco, CA, the summer before her junior year, Texas-native Ashton Benn walked away deeply affected by the number of people there she witnessed experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. It opened her eyes to the issue, which she says was also becoming increasingly prevalent in the surrounding area of the performing arts high school she attended in downtown Dallas.

At 17, she began accompanying social-service case workers who interacted directly with homeless residents in the Dallas area, but she felt she could do more. That same year, Ashton established a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called Starfish Dallas—the name inspired by Loren Eisley's "The Star Thrower," an essay which conveys the message that a single person can make a difference in the world.

Through the organization, Ashton organized a benefit dance concert at the Moody Performance Hall in September 2019, which didn't simply raise awareness around the issue, it also raised over $10,000. Those funds have been donated to local organizations that fight homelessness.

Now 18 and a freshman in the USC Kaufman BFA program for dance, Ashton says her experiences as a dancer played a major role in inspiring her to help others: "My passion for dance is what drives me to better myself and my community."

Leah Vaughan

Leah Vaughan may only be in the fourth grade, but that hasn't kept her from being a force of good in her community.

It all started when Leah created a gift basket of small comfort items for a dancer at her studio who was not feeling well, according to her mom, Erin. "After the basket was delivered, Leah turned to me and said, 'I want to do more! I want to help more people!' And that's how our children's volunteer group was created."

Leah and her family created a Facebook page for the group and called it "Small Hands." They use the page to share the latest in their community efforts—from volunteering at local food banks to setting up sites to accept donations for children in need—and invite other children to join them. "Leah has a network of friends that she inspires to help her do whatever she and her mom plan for a particular project," her dance teacher, Jennifer Cothren, says. "She's a go-getter," Cothren adds, "and constantly wants to learn and do more."

Brady Hattori leading a mental health resource initiative called the Green Bandana Project at his school (Felicia Holmes, courtesy Brady Hattori)

Brady Hattori

In the fall of 2018, Brady Hattori was sitting in a class at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, when a professor showed a video about a mental-health initiative, called the Green Bandana Project. Inspired, Brady decided to spearhead that same idea at his school.

"We work to distribute lime green bandanas to students," Hattori says. "And anyone who takes a bandana and ties it to their backpack has pledged to be someone who can be approached if a person on campus is struggling with their mental health." The bandanas are accompanied with resource cards, which include contact information for local mental-health resources, such as campus counseling services, the campus police, the city police, national suicide hotlines and more, he says.

Brandi Dreher (Hattori's dance teacher and owner of Gotta Dance Academy of Performing Arts in Lancaster, WI) says the college junior's contributions to his school community are a reflection of who he is at his core. "Not only is he a leader, but he puts in the time to help others," she says.

Megan Groth

High school junior Megan Groth knew that dancewear can be a costly expense of dance training. So, she set up a recycling center at her dance studio, Pottstown Dance Theatre in Pennsylvania, to get gently used dance attire to children who want to dance, but couldn't afford it. "It should be our goal to make dance as accessible as possible, because everyone should have the opportunity to dance," she says.

To raise money for the recycling center, she held a workshop, which, she says, introduced dancers in the area to dance styles from around the world. "She tries to teach love of all cultures, especially through the arts," says Michelle Jones Wurtz, Megan's dance teacher.

Millie Reitheirman campaigning for change in the 2020 presidential election—even though she's not old enough to vote (Erika Hill, courtesy millie Reitheirman)

Camilla "Millie" Reitherman

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced studios across the country to close, Santa Barbara Dance Arts student Millie Reitherman says she felt cut off from the world. But the pause also forced her to confront glaring social inequities happening nationwide—and she felt compelled to act.

She started volunteering with The Testing Project and, later, the Pennsylvania Back to Blue campaign. "I see national politics as an institution full of potential to make lasting impacts," Millie says. "And I deeply wanted the changes made in the next four years to reflect the foundations of a progressive future."

She's also been an active part of her home studio's Inclusion Coalitions, says her dance teacher, Alana Tillim. The coalitions, Tillim says, establish "safe and brave spaces for teens and leaders to discuss big topics, like race, LBGTQ+ issues, feminism, disabilities, mental health and body positivity."

Millie says working alongside these organizations has inspired a love for advocacy, and has renewed her belief that people working together can make a real difference. "We can make the change we want to see in the world," Millie says. "We just have to act."

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