By Leaps and Bounds
By Lou Fancher
At the 21st annual Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp, leadership looks like a backbend. Or a pirouette, hip-hop barrel roll, traditional West African dance or the three-minute pyrotechnical display of rhythms pumped out by every inch of a body performing Robert Battle’s Takademe. Choreographed by the current artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the solo requires astonishing intricacy, speed, articulate footwork and gestures, and sophisticated expressivity.
Takademe is a deceptively difficult dance to learn. What appears to audiences as if it flows organically from a body is instead the result of an arduous, long, cyclical process of learn, struggle, forget, re-learn, struggle, remember—until mastery is achieved.
This is why, during a conversation with two of the more than 70 young campers attending AileyCamp on the UC Berkeley campus, it’s intriguing when both 11-year-old Tyler Mil and Sydney Smith, age 13, reference the dance. Despite having completed only one week of the six-week summer camp, these dancers have begun to climb not only Takademe’s arduous learning curve, but to display the personal growth and leadership qualities the program seeks to cultivate.
AileyCamp offers full scholarships to select middle-school students from the Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond and Albany unified school districts. Mil attends Montclair Elementary School in Oakland and is new to the summer camp this year. “This is my first time being with Ailey,” he says. “It’s a lot of different dances I have never tried before. We jump a lot, go to the ground, move our arms to the ceiling. We sweat very little, so far.”
He says the best thing has been learning West African dance.
“It has a lot of bells and drums and fast moves, and seeing it makes me feel like it’s a really good challenge,” Mil says. The hardest part has been learning Takademe.
“It’s modern dance,” he says. “I sometimes like challenges and things that go fast, but this one goes in a zigzag, and that gets me confused. You do one thing and then it changes direction to another quality and I think, what happened? When I catch on, I get it, then lose it, get it, lose it, then get it again.”
Because he aspires to be an actor and knows dancing and singing will help his career opportunities, Mil’s determination and self-confidence are undiminished by what is, for now, slow progress in retaining Battle’s dance.
“I’ve only danced a little to music on my own or in acting class,” Mil says. “I’m not good at dancing—yet. But I am good at acting. I practice doing scripts and where I’m supposed to go in certain plays to say certain things.”
AileyCamp teaches students four dance techniques—modern, West African, jazz and ballet—along with creative communication, goal-setting, conflict management, media literacy, positive self-image and leadership. Especially last year and this year, there are increased opportunities for returning campers to assume leadership roles and develop mentorship skills within the camp. The goal is to foster unity and a greater sense of community while guiding young leaders of the next generation, regardless of whether or not they choose to become professional dancers.
Asked what he might teach someone about his camp experience so far, Mil says, “I’d teach you Takademe. Because I know a little bit of it in my head so I can tell you that. If camp ended today, the best part was meeting everybody. Everyone has something that’s like me, but not totally.”
Smith is a returning camper who attends Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland. She came to last year’s camp with dance experience.
“I started with contemporary and then modern and now I’m doing ballet,” Smith says. “I did a class my mom found because a neighbor did it. Then I went to Shawl-Anderson [Dance Center] and now I’m at the Oakland Ballet School. I have a friend from school who also dances and sometimes we dance in the backyard. Sometimes she teaches me hip-hop, like a barrel roll. I taught her a backbend.”
Smith decided to attend the camp for a second year because her friends were signing up. She had hoped they’d be placed in the same group, but they weren’t.
“That’s okay, though,” she says. “I meet people from other groups and people from my school I’ve never met before. When we go back to school, we can say, ‘Hey, remember me?’ It’s expanding my friends palette.”
Last year, Smith liked Fun Fridays, especially one that was a fashion show where campers chose their own outfits from the costume closet. “I wore ’80s fishnet wristbands and either red or green pants and I made up my own dance moves,” she says.
Those moves may or may not have consisted of West African dance, the technique she finds most difficult.
“It’s different moves than I’m used to,” Smith says, “and not like set moves in ballet or modern where if you do it one way, it’s wrong, and if you do it another way, it’s right. This is more hip-hop-esque and you can add your own flavor. It takes getting used to.”
Like Mil, Smith demonstrates the skills of a future leader; namely, a mix of courage, humility and awareness that new recruits need encouragement when faced with an external challenge or inner battle.
“If you asked me to teach you something from camp, I would teach you to be open to new things and just go for it,” she says. “I would say, ‘Talk to someone who knows more than I do, like a teacher, or watch a YouTube so you feel comfortable with a new style of dance or a step, and then you can try it.’ I’d teach you a pirouette because almost every dance style has a pirouette in it.”
It’s clear Mil and Smith are consumed, during the camp’s first few weeks, with learning new steps and the broad spectrum of dance techniques. But by the end of the program, they’ll also know a great deal about AileyCamp’s history.
AileyCamps first began in 1989 and in 2023 are located in several locations in the United States. The Bay Area AileyCamp was established in Berkeley in 2002 due to Cal Performances’ nearly 60-year history presenting the company. It has since reached more than 1,200 youths.
Campers will also learn of the legacy of choreographer Alvin Ailey and the company he founded in 1958 and helmed for decades before passing the baton to Judith Jamison, who then bestowed the mantle on Battle, only the third director in the company’s history.
In Berkeley, professional staff—almost all with direct connection to the company—lead the classes. In addition to free admission, campers receive free dancewear and shoes, breakfast and lunch in a university dining hall, special events like treasure hunts and field trips, and round-trip transportation for Oakland residents. A final, fully produced show at Zellerbach Auditorium often sells out but family, friends and supporters attend with free tickets for all.
AileyCamp Director Patricia West holds a bachelor’s in English, education and dance from UC Berkeley, and a master’s in education from San Jose State University. As an educator and performing artist, the Bay Area native has deep roots and investment in the local dance community. In an interview, she speaks about the emphasis and pathways the camp pursues in developing next-generation leaders.
“The thing about AileyCamp is that we’re always going back to the foundational values,” West says. “In previous years, we didn’t have returning students, relative to other camps across the country, because they could only come back much later when they were older, as counselors.” But last year, she heard that students wanted to return the next year.
“So ‘junior leaders’ was an idea that was timely,” she says, “because they were not only already doing things like leading treasure hunts and activities in the classroom, they were making new work. Being junior group leaders allows them to be representatives of their community and share their expertise as campers. Returning campers can be exemplary role models, even if they are only one year older or the same age as their peers.”
Potential junior leaders are interviewed and selected before being asked to commit to the “AileyCamp Returning Promise” that holds true to affirmations applicable not only to approaching dance but to life skills and habits used inside and outside of camp.
“They have the opportunity to be the face of someone who welcomes new campers after responding to questions during our selection interviews,” West says. “How would they contribute? Why should we choose them? What will you do when you’re here?”
This year’s nationwide theme at AileyCamps is “perspective.” West says it means inviting different points of view, with none of them judged right or wrong.
“There’s an opportunity for everyone to become empathetic, more compassionate to one another,” she says. “We may never see this world in the same way as another person, but at the same time, perspective brings about universality. I may like chocolate and you like vanilla, but we both like ice cream. How can we celebrate and honor our differences while also celebrating that we both have emotions, talents, gifts?”
Key to their teaching method is having fun, according to West and Associate Director Spencer Pulu (SPULU). Pulu is a storyteller, dance maker, fashion designer and performing artist from Chochenyo, Ohlone land (Oakland), and a former camper and group leader. West says a human bingo game opens a gateway to multiple perspectives without being pedantic.
“Each slot has a factor, like favorite color or position a camper holds in a family,” she says. “They had to talk to each other to place someone in a slot as they sought to fill their grids. After someone made bingo, we talked about what was surprising, what assumptions they had made and then dropped, and how people perceive each other.”
Like the pledge made by group leaders, campers practice daily affirmative ideas. These could include greeting a day with love in their heart, thinking before acting, listening to learn, treating others with courtesy and respect, saying “I am a winner” or “I will not use the word ‘can’t’ to define my possibilities,’” and more. West says some kids tell her they’ve never looked in the mirror and called themselves a “winner.” As campers select an affirmation they identify with on any given day, they gain perspective on their view of themselves.
In addition to becoming more comfortable dancing or identifying as dancers—or as leaders and “winners”—for West, the markers of success as students depart each year are not backbends or pirouettes or even the complexities of Takademe and other Ailey repertoire they’ve learned. Ultimately, West wants students to remember they did something incredibly difficult.
“To spend your summer working hard, even if you love dance,” she says, “you have to get up early each morning, make your way here, make choices like giving up your phone for six hours, tucking in your shirt, following a camp dress code, not wearing false eyelashes or having dyed hair, and not eating sugar or sodas except for when they earn the ‘commendable camper’ award and get a certificate for a dessert or treat.” The awards given at the end of each week take effort to earn and are for things like helping other campers.
West knows from experience that taking away those things that kids at that age associate with self-expression will initially cause discomfort, but will eventually cause them to realize they don’t need added amenities to let their uniqueness shine.
“We ask them to be vulnerable to a new skill,” West says. “To do their personal best in dance but also in communication, in their spoken voice, in expressing themselves through words, art and their bodies. At the final show, when the families and friends are out there applauding them, it gives me goosebumps. The campers have learned that pride. They go out and the next time they encounter something hard, they know and believe they will be able to achieve it.”