What if every time you pirouetted you saved a tree—or a life? What if your love of dance and your concern for others were seamlessly woven together? For many of you, this is not such an outlandish idea. This fall, we were overwhelmed by your stories of generosity. You told us about raising money for sick children, teaching in underprivileged communities and designing for a cause—all through the lens of your first love: dance! Here we’ve profiled five outstanding dancers, organizations and studios who’ve made profound differences to those around them. Each of these remarkable people reminds us that dancing—and dancers—can, indeed, make the world a better place.
Cause: Lung Cancer
Think one leotard can change the world? So does 21-year-old Erica Sabatini, a corps member with the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, NC. Last summer, Erica decided to investigate her second passion: fashion design. She interned with Candice Thompson, owner and designer of LOLA-stretch, a dancewear design company based in Brooklyn, NY, and went to work on a leotard all her own. The catch? All the proceeds from the original design, called RIBellious, go to LUNGevity, a charity that funds medical research for lung cancer and offers support to the lung cancer community.
Erica, who grew up in Philadelphia and trained at The Rock School and at Miami City Ballet, knew that the project had to be about more than a leotard: “I lost my father to lung cancer last Christmas,” she explains. “Being a cancer survivor myself”—Erica had a sinus tumor as an infant and is now in remission—“and losing my dad, and now my best friend has cancer…having been affected by it in so many ways, I really want to give back in some way to the community.”
Erica’s design went on sale this fall, and one hundred percent of the profits are going to LUNGevity. The goal is to raise $2,500. “People think that buying a leotard can’t save a life—that it’s laughable—but that’s like saying your vote doesn’t matter,” Erica says. Spending the summer in NYC and exploring other career options—“You always want to have a plan B as a dancer,” she explains—helped Erica get some perspective on life: “I can get very caught up in ballet, and that’s great, but at the end of the day you want to leave work and do something fun.” She pauses and adds, “I definitely feel healed. I feel like I’ve found myself again.” For more: lungevity.org
Cause: Women's Cancers
Two summers ago, Maribeth Samoya watched anchorwoman Ann Curry and actress Diane Lane cut their long hair on NBC’s “The Today Show.” The dramatic cutting was for Pantene Beautiful Lengths, a national organization that provides free wigs to women undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. “I was growing my hair out at the time,” Maribeth says, “and thought it would be a great thing to do.” The chair of the Fine Arts Department at Seton High School in Cincinnati, OH, Maribeth assumed that some of the students at the all-girls high school might be interested in the project as well—“but the response,” she says, “was overwhelming.”
In May, Maribeth and the Seton high schoolers put together the largest simultaneous cut for Pantene Beautiful Lengths in history—over 200 girls and women cut off their ponytails for the cause. Five of the students who made the cut were members of the Seton Highlighters, a varsity dance team ranked eighth in the country last year in large team at NDA. In addition to cutting their hair, the team performed a routine to “Hair,” “to loosen everyone up and make the whole event more fun,” Maribeth explains. “We called off classes. The whole day was pretty much a party!”
One of the Seton Highlighters who made the cut was 15-year-old sophomore Emma Dickman. Emma’s mom and grandmother both suffered from breast cancer. Though her mom’s cancer is now in remission (and her hair is growing back), it made the event extra meaningful: “My sister and I actually shaved my mom’s head when she started to go through chemo,” Emma explains. “Remembering everything that happened that year was really intense.” How did she react when her mom cut off her 12-inch ponytail? (Donors must cut at least 8 inches.) “It was really emotional,” Emma says. “I didn’t think I’d cry over my hair! But I was glad that we did Beautiful Lengths so that I could help other people.” For more: beautifullengths.com
Cause: Domestic Violence
Tonya Matheny already has a lot on her plate: The owner of Ready, Set, Dance! Studio outside Orlando, FL, Tonya offers ballet, pointe, tap, jazz, lyrical, hip hop, tumbling and ballroom to over 400 dancers. Her students are active outside the studio as well—they dance at assisted-living homes and participate in the Breast Cancer Awareness Walk—but Tonya was “looking for something more to do, community-wise.” She picked Shepherd’s Promise, an organization that helps women and children in domestic and/or economic crises become self-sufficient.
“I found out about Shepherd’s Promise because one of my student’s mothers went through the program,” she explains. “Sometimes women have to leave their husbands with nothing but their purses.” Shepherd’s Promise helps them find housing, offers counseling and gives them access to a variety of classes that enable them get back on their feet.
After Thanksgiving 2006, Tonya set up a Christmas tree in the studio lobby and decorated it with tags listing the ages and genders of 21 needy children who would receive gifts. The goal was to provide socks and underwear for everyone. Tonya says, “Socks and underwear are such a simple things, but to leave your house without them…” Unsurprisingly, donations came pouring in. Each child received seven or eight gifts, while 17 mothers were given canvas tote bags stuffed with bath goodies, bathrobes, candles and Target gift cards. “My kids were all about helping other children,” Tonya says. “I have moms who struggle to pay their kids’ tuition but who brought stuff to donate.” The drive is now an annual event. For more: shepherdspromise.org, readysetdance.com
Cause: Homeless Youth
House of the Roses is no ordinary dance company. Founded in 2003 by Broadway performer Jeff Shade and incorporated as a nonprofit in 2005, HOTR is a volunteer dance company that serves a population rarely exposed to formal dance training: homeless and at-risk kids.
The HOTR teachers (professional and amateur dancers) provide weekly on-site dance classes at three homeless shelters and one community center in NYC, reaching approximately 150 kids each year.
The students (ages 6-16) learn jazz, tap and hip hop, and even choreograph their own dances. They work on creative expression, technique and teamwork skills, and the teachers place great emphasis on consistency and positive reinforcement. “A lot of what they hear is negative, so we focus on positive reinforcement,” says Rachel McGregor, president of the board of directors and a former teaching artist and dance company member. “We try to drive home that we’re going to be dancing with them and having fun, but most importantly—we’re going to be there.”
Despite how tough life is for some of these kids, the transformations they experience through dance can be remarkable: “We had a little boy who would look right through you, who just wouldn’t dance,” Rachel says. “He made a turnaround that was such a joy to see. We started to learn a tap piece and he was really good at it. He said, ‘This is awesome!’ And we were like, ‘Breakthrough!’ They have so much love for the volunteers coming in. Their faces light up. It’s nice to know that we’re able to give them something that’s special to them.”
The year culminates in Roses Are Dance, a big performance at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University for friends, family and NYC’s performing arts community. The next big HOTR concert will be in June. For more: houseoftheroses.com
How much would you do for the fight against HIV/AIDS? Would you hang posters, assemble gift bags and usher? How about design lights, stage-manage, run sound, change gels—oh, right, and dance? That’s just part of what the 40-something members of Orchesis, a high school dance company in the suburbs of Chicago, do every year for Youth in Action, a benefit for Dance for Life and The Children’s Place Association, both AIDS-related charities.
Youth in Action began 13 years ago as an offshoot of the Chicago-based organization Dance for Life, which raises money for the AIDS-ravaged dance community through yearly dance benefits. Three youth dance company directors wanted to engage their students in the cause. Among them was Diane Rawlinson, who directs Orchesis and Wheeling High School’s extensive dance program. Now her dancers all but run the benefit, and big companies like The Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago donate items for the raffle. Over the course of its history, Youth in Action has raised more than $95,000!
“The students are so willing to give back, even though they don’t have much themselves,” Diane says. Dancer Heather Brozowski, 18, has been participating since her sophomore year: “When the show starts I’m up in the tech box. I change into my costume, then run down the stairs, get ready for the piece, dance, then run back up to the box and do the lights again.” Sound hectic? “It’s fun!” Heather says. “It’s nice to know that you can be a part of something you love to do and give back at the same time.” For more: danceforlife.com, whs.d214.org/results/fa/Dance.html, childrens-place.org/