Peterson Exais and Isabella Giret entered AileyCamp Miami from different worlds.
Peterson, 14, a survivor of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and Isabella, 11, who moved to Miami from Brazil three years ago, signed up with varying degrees of eagerness. Peterson thought the dance instruction would be too simplistic; Isabella feared she wouldn’t fit in.
They were both wrong.
The two are some of the many standouts of the six-week camp at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, which blends instruction in jazz, modern, ballet and West African dance with personal development and communication classes. Even breakfast and lunch, served daily inside performers’ dressing rooms fashioned into a cafeteria, are turned into lessons on health and fitness.
“Because they teach us discipline, I’ll use that discipline I learned here in my school,” said Jayden Nelson, 11, a seventh-grader at Norland Middle School in Miami Gardens.
Putting it all together, on Saturday evening, the 100 campers, ages 11-14 and drawn from across the county, will present an original production for an audience of friends, family and the general public at the Arsht’s Knight Concert Hall.
The center is buzzing as showtime approaches. They’re learning steps, perfecting their spoken word routines, finding their voice.
In one of the studios, Musa Rigaba, 14, a native of Zimbabwe, beat boxes a thumping rhythm bed for two fellow campers to sing Beyoncé’s empowerment anthem, Pretty Hurts. AileyCamp director Tanisha Cidel and her colleagues call for a second run-through. The harmonies are nice and the beat boxing commands attention, but the lead vocal needs “more attitude.”
Beyoncé’s song is deceptive. The tender ballad pairs with a lyric haunted by past pain and hard-won awareness. Shyness in delivery won’t capture its meaning.
Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst/We try to fix something but you can't fix what you can't see/It’s the soul that needs the surgery.
The trio’s second pass is the winner. Cidel, in her fourth year at AileyCamp, and a theater and magnet teacher at Norland, applauds.
“These kids are getting opportunities not only in the performing arts, but in personal development and that core is not taught in schools and should be. I’m getting chills because it is so needed,” Cidel said.
The sound of high-fives echos along the mirrored walls. The campers seem relieved. The next performer comes forward.
Peterson is nearly perfect on his solo modern dance, all limbs and clean lines. Isaiah Nielsen, 13, a Nautilus Middle School eighth-grader, is agile, precise, and a frenzy of energy on his feet. Fellow campers, urged for weeks to support their peers’ endeavors and breakthroughs, applaud — by this point, without prompt.
Gratitude and affirmations
Last week, the campers, selected in the spring through an application process that includes interviews with 25 civic and arts leaders, learned which particular dance style they will perform as groups. Saturday’s performance will be set to this year’s camp theme: gratitude.
Daily affirmations, spoken in unison in five lines, ring out at 8:30 a.m. and at the close of the day at 3:30 p.m.
“I will not use the word ‘can’t’ to define my possibilities. I will keep a positive attitude all day, every day.”
Group leaders, instructors culled from places like New World School of the Arts and local schools and universities, will have heard these affirmations about 80 times this summer.
All of this goes into molding tomorrow’s leaders.
The campers’ jazz dance instructor, Valerie Moise, toured with Lady Gaga and, for 14 years, with R&B superstar Usher. On Saturday, her students — each with a story to touch your heart — will be every bit the assured, poised performers. At least, that’s been the goal since the first AileyCamp Miami, a partnership with Miami-Dade Public Schools, was held at the center six years ago.
Today, AileyCamp is held in eight other cities across the country, usually in schools. The Miami camp, its $320,000 budget funded by grants and donations, is the only one held inside a performing arts center, according to Jairo Ontiveros, Arsht’s director for education and community engagement.
The novelty allows campers to work for seven hours per day on the same stages where President Barack Obama, B.B. King, Willie Nelson and the casts of Wicked and The Lion King have spoken, sung, danced and acted. As stagehands loaded the center’s major summer show, Lookingglass Alice, through backstage doors and docks a month ago, the bustle of professional activity awed the students, some of whom had never been inside a theater, least of all in its inner sanctum.
“They literally take over every space,” Ontiveros says as he sweeps through backstage areas. “They see all the scenery going into the big stage so they get very comfortable with stagehands and have conversations with them. They feel it.”
Isaiah, the Nautilus dancer, who had his moves down a week ago, wants to connect to his late father’s culture by perfecting West African dance. He gave props to his mom, Mette Neilsen, for signing him up.
“He was Irish, Nigerian, South African and he was from New York and my mom is straight-up Danish. She can’t give me any of my dad’s heritage so West African percussion helped me connect with that side of my family tree,” he said.
Angel Marchelle Orlina, 13, an eighth-grader at Fienberg-Fisher K-8 Center on Miami Beach, wants “to be an FBI agent,” she says. The discipline and life lessons she’s learning in her favorite class, Personal Development, will help her get there, she believes.
There, she learns about bullying, conflict resolution, self-esteem, the perils of cyberspace, building credibility — tools-for-life topics.
Jayden, the seventh-grader at Norland Middle, Cidel’s alma mater, missed a few classes when he was hospitalized two weeks ago, owing to sickle cell disease. While in his hospital bed, he shared a video urging his fellow campers to go forward. They, in return, filmed a group video on a cellphone filled with good wishes and cheer.
“The video they sent me made me feel excited and special,” Jayden said. “I really liked what they did for me. I feel nervous, excited, my stomach tickles because I just got back and have to learn the steps really fast.”
The journey of a few weeks
Both Peterson and Isabella were initially apprehensive on that first day of camp back in June.
Peterson knows of transcending difficult moments.
Five years ago, he was playing with a friend when the Haitian earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, sending ceiling and cinder blocks raining on the boys. They were entombed for four days in the rubble; his friend died in the crumbled house. Peterson was 9.
Shortly thereafter, he and his mother moved to Miami.
“I don’t use the earthquake as an excuse or to my advantage. It’s the reason I’m here ... but so long as I am here, I’m going to make the best of it,” he said.
“When I first came, it was slower than usually how I learn to dance,” said Peterson, during week three. “The dances were beginner level. Where I trained [at Miami Arts Charter, where he is entering ninth grade] I learned to pick up the choreography quickly. But throughout the weeks it’s gotten more advanced, which was really cool. I am challenged.”
Isabella, meanwhile, was not quite so emboldened.
“I was feeling uncomfortable,’’ said the International Charter Studies seventh-grader. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to develop. But in the second week I already made friends. I discovered the new me. [I] usually only danced ballet and contemporary, but now I am in jazz and I get to mix it up. It’s been fun. It’s a privilege that has been given to us. At first I said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but I’m now already planning for next year.”
Ontiveros can’t help but beam.
“She is one of our campers who, on the first week, was more shy, more reserved, kept to herself. There’s this child at the beginning who wasn’t outspoken in this sea of children and now she can tell you of her journey in a wonderful way ... gave me goose bumps,” he said.
Isabella’s only getting started.
“My parents are from Paraguay. I speak Portuguese, English, Spanish and am learning French. You use your feet to incorporate with the floor — which is the earth, she taught us,” she says of Trina Soumare, her West African dance teacher.
Ontiveros smiles again. “Nothing speaks more to what Miami represents than 100 kids on a stage, delivering their voices together.”
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If you go
What: AileyCamp Final Performance: Attitude of Gratitude
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1
Where: Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Cost: Free. A limited number of first-access passes will be released through the Arsht Center website at www.arshtcenter.org. After these passes run out, patrons may join the standby line at 6 p.m. on show day at the box office for first-come, first-served basis.