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Ballet and Books combines dance and reading in support of children’s literacy

Second-year pre-human biology and society student Moe Kawakami brought a chapter of Ballet and Books to UCLA, started at Cornell University. Alongside Ballet Company at UCLA co-directors of external service Caroline Chou and Yingru Huang, the club hopes to increase literacy through dance. (Lauren Man/Assistant Photo editor)

By Amelie Lobo

Jan. 27, 2021 3:37 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 31 at 6:46 p.m.

Ballet and Books is pairing pirouettes with page-turners to bring literacy to young students in the LA community.

Back in November, the founder from Cornell University of Ballet and Books – a free program dedicated to teaching children ages 3 to 9 literacy through dance – reached out to Moe Kawakami, a second-year pre-human biology and society student and co-founder of the Ballet Company at UCLA, to establish a branch at UCLA. The original founder determined Ballet and Books aligned well with the Ballet Company at UCLA’s philosophy, making the club executives the right people to start a new chapter. Kawakami said she agreed and decided the program would be a great resource for elementary students in the LA area.

“We don’t want dance to have a barrier to access,” Kawakami said. “Ballet is thought of as something that is super privileged for a lot of families, (but) what Ballet and Books does is that they offer mentorship and free classes to any child who enrolls. … We want dance to be more accessible to any child, any student who wants to learn.”

Third-year film and television student and the club’s co-director of external service Caroline Chou said the basic idea of the organization revolves around relating rhythm and dance movements with words. Yingru Huang, a fourth-year dance student and Chou’s co-director said the ballet classes will be catered toward each age range of participants, featuring simple movements like the five basic ballet positions. She said these movements intend to develop the students’ kinesthetic abilities and will be tied to certain words or phrases in order to create a physical association with the words. The program is set to follow a full-year curriculum, which Chou said allows for students to grow in their dancing and reading abilities.

[Related: UCLA’s first ballet company a safe haven for pliés, dégagés and fun]

The program will also feature books about dance, encouraging students to connect the characters’ movements with their own, Kawakami said. Focusing on a particular movement in a book can help inspire and build the self-confidence of young students who may look up to the main characters, she said. For instance, one of the stories the program hopes to begin with is “Firebird” by Misty Copeland, the first African American female principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre. Ballet and Books will start with a specific selection of ballet books and provide individual books to each student, Huang said.

“Our goal is to ultimately not only to help these kids understand literacy, but to also enjoy it,” Huang said. “Reading is fun, literacy is fun, and we’re trying to hone that in and show them that it’s not just a tedious ‘in the classroom learning’ kind of experience.”

An aspect that differentiates this program from other literacy programs is its incorporation of group classes as well as one-on-one mentorship, Huang said. The dance classes will be held as a group, conducted by the head teacher, with students getting specific feedback, Chou said. After these weekly sessions, she said students will work with their mentors on the reading aspect to address the individual literacy needs of each child.

Ballet and Books will not only conduct ballet classes – the organization will also incorporate other dance styles children might find interesting, Huang said. Kawakami said the executive board wants to work on blending movements from various dance styles to make the classes a more fun, creative experience. The board hopes to work with other UCLA dance clubs, including cultural dance teams, to bring a cultural learning aspect as part of the educational process, Chou said.

[Related: Dance club seeks to provide inclusive, accessible space for kids with disabilities]

With the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Huang said the board is preparing for COVID-19-safe, in-person instruction as well as Zoom classes and mentorship for those who sign up. But, she said, a key factor the executive board is trying to get a hold of is a connection with the local library to grant greater access to the community and help the program reach its target audience. If the program is in person, Chou said their plan is to also utilize the library to hold classes.

“Originally, there was a spring semester part of the program planned with Cornell, but we didn’t want to rush into things,” Chou said. “Come fall, if everything (regarding COVID-19) is still as bad as it currently is, we would be doing our classes over Zoom. … There’s not many of us (board members) in LA at the moment, so we’re taking advantage of who is there to help us get in touch with the library.”

In the long term, Kawakami said the goal is for students to learn to enjoy reading and be inspired to visit the library more frequently. For mentors, she said she hopes that they establish a close bond with their students and learn to be more patient, which is especially important when teaching young children. Overall, Chou said Ballet and Books aims to bring ballet to a diverse group of children while building their confidence in reading and writing.

“We are just really hoping to bring both ballet and literacy into the greater LA community,” Chou said. “Not everybody gets to experience (ballet) in their lifetimes, and so I really do hope that through this program, some of the kids can unlock that passion for dance, as well as just learning how to read and loving reading.”

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Amelie Lobo
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