From The Nutcracker to Busy Bees to Piano Slam to WOW’s Hu(e)mans: on how Miami’s educators transform kids’ lives through arts and culture experiences and grow happier and healthier communities
Camila Gil moved with her mom to Miami from Bogota, Colombia, when she was 11. A lot had changed, but one thing remained constant: her deep passion for dance. Finding the perfect dance school in their new city was not easy, but when they finally discovered the right one, it stuck.
“At Armour Dance Theatre, I finally found a home, and from there, I was just there every day,” she says.
Camila is still at Armour Dance Theatre every day, but now, as its executive director. She speaks with humble respect as she details its 75-year history. The theatre’s founder, Thomas Armour, was a famous ballet dancer whose performance career ended with his World War II military service. After the war, Armour returned to his South Florida home to run a small ballet school. At its start, Armour’s school, then called the Miami Ballet, immersed aspiring dancers in productions of full-scale ballets. But Ruth Wiesen, a ballet student and trained nurse who began teaching at the school, made it into the inclusive, community-focused powerhouse for transformation that it is today.
“One day, Ruth took a lecture demonstration to a Liberty City school in Miami,” Camila says. "As the girls were up on stage, one little girl came up to her and said, I would love to do ballet but I can't, I don't look like that. And Ruth responded, Yes, You can.”
“That opened up the world for Ruth,” Camila continues. "She knew that there was so much potential to use the art of dance to transform children's lives and to make dance accessible to all children, regardless of income, race, ethnicity, gender, identity, ability, body type, and so much more.”
Ruth’s vision echoes through Armour Dance Theatre’s productions, especially their annual performances of The Nutcracker. They’re ditching the petite, all-white casts, the stuffiness, and the expensive tickets, instead opting for something more inclusive, engaging, and accessible – a performance that leaves young audience members thinking, I can do ballet.
“Our Nutcracker is the most diverse here in Miami. We have children from all across the community and all sorts of backgrounds. We also do sensory-friendly performances to ensure children with high sensitivities to things like light and audio, and those on the autism spectrum, are able to watch from the audience, feel comfortable, and enjoy the experience of a dance performance,” Camila says.
As Camila mentions Armour Dance Theatre students’ evolutions – a shy six-year-old from Little Haiti turned NYU graduate, a student struggling with expression now sharing her story as a TODAY Show contributor – it’s clear that Armour Dance Theatre’s work is about more than organized movements of the body. It’s about using dance education to provide young people with the comprehensive support, mentorship, care, and motivation that give them space to dream and achieve those dreams.
“We use the art of dance to transform children's lives, and I'm one of those children,” Camila says.
Guitars Over Guns transforms kids' lives with the power of music. Armed with backgrounds as professional musicians and training in social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care, Guitars Over Guns mentors teach students to sing, play instruments, compose, produce music, and more.
“We've watched kids teach each other how to read,” Guitars Over Guns founder Chad Bernstein says. “We've watched kids unpack trauma and deal with it and support each other through it. We’ve watched kids break social strata.”
Rody Lafrance was one of those kids. He grew up in Miami, influenced by a rich melodic mixture of pop, 90s R&B, and the Compás music his parents brought with them from their home in Haiti. A middle school class with Guitars Over Guns connected him with his instrument of choice and a network of support and opportunity that’s both musical and personal. It led him to become a mentor himself, perform on the TEDxYouth@Miami stage, and train as an advocate through The Peace Studio’s Artist as Catalyst program. But it also instilled deep values.
“I believe in self-love and self-awareness and the fact that we all have a voice. We're all waiting for somebody to just listen to our story,” Rody says. “I wonder how many people have a mentor in their lives who is able to be that other voice when nobody else is there.”
Performing onstage hasn’t always been easy for Rody. He comes across as humble and introspective – not the kind of guy you’d imagine relishing the spotlight. But on the night of his first public performance, as he watched the audience’s peaceful gaze as he strummed, Rody knew he’d found his purpose.
“When they were clapping, I was just nodding. I was taking it all in. And I think from then on, I realized that if I could make people feel what they did at that moment, then maybe music was something that I should pursue,” he says.
Fuel minds & enrich hearts
Arts For Learning is helping students find their voices through interdisciplinary programs. With what executive director Sheila Womble describes as a “continuum of care,” they serve students ranging from infants to 18-year-olds through a wide range of hands-on classes. Their goal isn’t to produce museum-worthy art, it’s to cultivate expression.
“Art is not just a practice, it's also about what you’re trying to communicate,” Sheila emphasizes, sharing that sometimes, Arts for Learning students’ communication breakthroughs are as monumental as speaking their first words.
“They get so emotionally invested in the work, and they're excited to be around the artists, and they realize they have something to say. This may be the first time they're given an opportunity to use the language of arts to try to communicate something, and they realize Maybe I can also try to vocalize as well.”
Sheila doesn’t hesitate to give teachers the credit for Arts For Learning’s inclusive environments, which “give kids safe room to be vulnerable.” She says her own teachers – the especially creative ones – led her to a career in the arts.
“Oftentimes it is by chance that you just happen to have that really awesome creative teacher. And so we wanted to give as many children as possible that chance to create and connect their learning to their creativity,” Sheila says.
By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project
Hu(e)mans of Miami, the collaborative project presented by the WOW Center at Miami’s Coral Gables Museum, is another example of a colorful, inclusive environment. In celebration of Autism Acceptance Month, the exhibition featured the original artwork of neurodivergent artist Thalya Baker, as well as the work of seven local schools.
“We want to talk about the quality of life and how to live with one another,” explains Gianna Riccardi, director of education and public programs at Coral Gables Museum. As a trained art therapist, she emphasizes the importance of learning how to embrace our commonalities and celebrate differences.
A hue is a point on a spectrum of color – every color melts into the other to create the next hue. “Hu(e)man" comes from the belief that regardless of the color of your skin, your age, your gender, your disABILITY – we are all more alike than different, we are hu(e)man,” the curators messaged to the community.
What can I do about this?
Building communication skills – teaching young people how to speak up for themselves and others – is a valuable step toward instilling a spirit of advocacy. But to become advocates, kids also need to see that they can make a difference.
That’s what inspired playwright Ashlee K. Thomas to create The Busy Bees’ Great Adventure, an environmental conservation-focused musical that developed and commissioned by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
“[Ashlee] was isolated during the pandemic. She was seeing all of these things change in the crazy world, and she felt helpless, like, What can I do about this?” the show’s director, actor and educator Tanisha Cidel, says.
Ashlee certainly did something – and she’s showing 30,000 students that they can too. This year, MDCPS elementary students across the county have the chance to see The Busy Bees’ Great Adventure for free and learn more about the environment with an accompanying in-classroom curriculum.
The Arsht Center offers signature education programs and free arts opportunities to more than 80,000 South Florida students annually. For most students, this is their first live theater experience at their local performing arts center. Everything, including transporting students to the Arsht Center, is provided free to schools and students through the generosity of Arsht Center supporters.
The Busy Bees’ Great Adventure, a new Arsht Center musical in production and premiers in October 2023
Photo by Alex Markow
The entire experience shows students the power their voices and actions hold. In May, student representatives from every district helped workshop the musical, and their feedback will be incorporated into the final production. The companion curriculum isn’t just about climate change, broadly, it’s about the issues directly impacting South Florida students and the actions they can take now to help.
The Busy Bees team is exemplifying advocacy in less obvious ways, too. The musical’s cast hails entirely from Miami, and its musical numbers draw from popular and regional styles. The team designed the production specifically with Miami students in mind.
“They're just a little bit more connected to it when you broaden the horizons and allow all kinds of people to be seen on the stage,” says Tanisha.
Tanisha and the Arsht Center have collaborated on many programs, including the Dranoff International 2 Piano Foundation's Piano Slam.
Piano Slam is a creative writing project and scholarship competition not only for language arts curricula but also for science, technology, engineering, and math. It successfully integrates the arts into Miami-Dade County's middle and high school classrooms, presenting live concerts and spoken word poetry.
Since 2009, the Dranoff Foundation has engaged over 109,000 teens and given them a chance to experience the power of collaborative, interdisciplinary creativity and problem-solving firsthand.
The program culminates in a 'classical, hip-hop, spoken word mashup' featuring music ranging from J.S. Bach to Dua Lipa and finalists' performances of their poems.
"Music is an open door," Carlene Sawyer, the Dranoff International 2 Piano Foundation's executive director says. "FIU did a three-year university study of Piano Slam. And what they found was that kids felt more confident in the information they were learning. They felt more disciplined in their work. They felt more hopeful about their experience in school."
The latest Piano Slam invited students to craft original poems on "Hot Music. Hot Miami" focused on heat resilience and protecting the lives of the most heat-vulnerable communities.
Most students' poems were about trees, still the most effective 'technology' to guard against city heat. Miami-Dade County offers homeowners free trees through a special Adopt-a-Tree program. Over 225,000 trees have been given away since 2001.
"One of the topics we discussed was shade trees and how they provide relief from the heat in Dade. We collaborated with the FIU Department of Environment and Earth Science, which helped us monitor hotspots and cooler areas outside. As a result, we planted trees in local schools, and the students wrote about this initiative."
RHYTHM OF THE WORLD Caitlin Savage, 10th Grade Coral Gables Senior | STEM During the day she sings. You can hear her from the highest mountain top, From the lowest valley. Her voice is strong and stern. Powerful enough to flow throughout the planet, To reach every being, Down to every lion and to every ant. She is mighty with her song. The song that flows with her rhythm, The powerful beat of her heart. Molten pumps erupting from her core, Bubbles of passion marking the surface. The whistle of her winds, The way they chime through the lush flora And the singing from the birds, Their intricate acoustics waking up the world. But when the sun sets and the world is asleep, If you listen closely, you can hear her cry A cry from holding all the secrets she can't conceal From singing her song with a cutthroat Only few will notice the change in the wind The way it sings to a different tune, Almost as if its choking on the words, The words we all struggle to say. The secrets we're afraid to admit. They sadden her, and she grieves quietly. But if no one hears her when she cries, Does that mean there's nothing wrong? The stark contrast between night and day, We must rise up and acknowledge, The unevenness of light and shade. How it hurts her; she can't conceal this pain forever.
Piano Slam is a truly "rewarding experience" for all. It's a celebration of humanity and a testimonial of our potential to transform our communities and ourselves.
"You not only saw students from middle or high school but also some students with disabilities. And you also saw some incarcerated students who came from a locked facility to participate on the stage that night. And we've been doing that for about five years," Carlene adds.
"Access is important. But belonging is what people need to feel to start to be active in their community."
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