The students, all girls, most in their teens, walked single -file to dance class, where they were asked how they were feeling and if they wanted to dance. They all did, except one, who sat by the door, put her head down and kept it there.
The rest, attentive, sat in a circle around dance teacher Nikki Lewis, who led them in stretching exercises and then asked them to flex their feet. They all flexed, except one who sat immobile.
Dance class was starting off well.
Lewis, 24, is a teacher with Dance Avenue, the outreach and education arm of Ballet Memphis that is conducting the 10-week program that began in June, at the Girls Center for Intensive Residential Treatment at the Bartlett campus of Youth Villages.
Dance Avenue has not worked with troubled girls before, said Karl Condon, associate artistic director, and Girls Center staff say they’ve never had a sustained dance class. The girls learn a little ballet, along with African dances, modern, step and hip-hop. The partnership seems to be working.
The girls, dressed in whatever was comfortable, imitated Lewis’ simple steps well enough, but when Lewis put on African drum music, the effect was electric. Smiles spread and chatter rose. Hip-hop especially energized them. Before Lewis could demonstrate a backward move, one girl shot back, hips swiveling, feet balletic, causing the others to erupt in laughter.
Becca Benton, a recreational therapist, said people from the community have taught yoga and exercise classes, “but this is by far the one they’ve been most receptive to. Maybe it’s the music. They’re so encouraging to each other in this setting. It surprises me.”
The girls will don simple costumes and perform for mentors and family at the center August 20.
The Girls Center serves 64 girls, many seriously troubled, said Traci Carr, a residential counselor. They come from Tennessee and other states, some referred through other treatment programs that didn’t work. “Most have had some type of trauma, sexual or physical abuse, or traumatic grief,” she said. “Some have self-harming behavior or they’re physically aggressive.” They live in housing organized in quadrants and go to school on campus.
They are allowed to choose to participate in dance, because “we want to help them make their own decisions,” said Carr. Participation in various activities earns points, which gets them privileges.
Any of 16 girls may choose to attend the classes held twice a week for an hour. Lewis never knows who will attend. It doesn’t seem to matter. Her manner is cheerful and patient.
Lewis is a former Ballet Memphis School scholarship student who earned a degree in dance education from the University of Tennessee, Martin.
“I tell them to take the frustration out in movement. It makes the movement more expressive,” she said.
“She’s really nice,” said Felicia Limon, 16, one of the residents. “I think I’m doing good.”
“The hardest part is leaving,” said Brittany Mackey, 14.
Rebecca Hancock, director of the Girls Center, said the class was funded by Youth Villages. She hopes they can repeat it with other girls, but they need a sponsor.
Issues have been rare during the course, except once when two girls got into an altercation. They were separated.
On this day the girl who declined to flex her foot gamely struggled to follow the class for about half an hour, and then walked off the floor. She laid down and curled up in a small enclave and kicked angrily several times at a door. The class continued, barely missing a beat.
A staff member quietly walked over to “process” with her. That meant to help her identify the source of her feelings and find better ways to deal with it. She calmed down, but did not rejoin the group.
A number of girls tired during class and dropped out to sit on benches and watch the others. Some rejoined later.
At the end of class, well after the line formed to leave, three girls, who had never sat down, were still dancing.
When Benton walked the line, asking girls how they felt, thumbs went up.