On a recent Wednesday afternoon, members of Move Me Soul sat exhausted on a stage listening to dance instructors Yolanda Pittman-Maloney and Ayesha Jaco review their latest rehearsal. Jaco wasn’t happy with the level of commitment she saw after more than five run-throughs.
“It’s called pure energy, guys,” she said.
The group comprised of 30 students from the Austin High School campus are preparing for a second performance at the Chicago Theater on March 23th as part of the After School Matters gala.
After School Matters is modeled after the arts-related, job-training program Gallery 37 in that Chicago teens, like those participating in Move Me Soul, receive stipends and learn marketable skills as apprentices.
“To go back a second year, [now] an apprenticeship with some growth behind them, is really awesome,” said Jaco. “We’re really honored that they’ve been dedicated and taking it up to the next level each year.”
Beginning as a gym class, the dance troupe joined the After School Matters program in 2009. At last year’s gala, the group received a rare opportunity to perform, winning the “Best Campus” award for their region and program.
The troupe hopes to repeat its success Wednesday when it competes against about 30 other school programs.
Maloney, who’s been an instructor at the Austin campus since 2007, said her mission is enabling the students to become better human beings. Laid off in 2001, she began pursuing her retirement dreams of opening a dance studio by first substituting at her daughter’s dance school.
When students first come to Move Me Soul, they often struggle with receiving guidance. As students become secure in their talents, a transformation takes place, she said.
That’s been true for Antonio McMorris.
At 6’2,’’ the Austin Poly Tech senior would be a shoo-in for basketball but found himself attracted to dance his freshman year. Dealing with anger issues, McMorris said dance has allowed him to channel his feelings in a positive way.
“Dance for me is an inspiration,” Antonio said. “It will touch me in a way to learn and help others learn.”
During his four years with the troupe, Jaco helped him work through his embarrassments to realize his own potential to do things he had never considered, Antonio said.
“Ms. Jaco helped me get in touch with another side of me I never knew,” he said.
Students often arrive resistant to what the program offers, said Jaco. But over time, they begin to appreciate the process and their growth.
“They cursed me out. They weren’t feeling this. They weren’t used to it. And they left,” said Jaco, recalling with a laugh those early days. Even last semester some students were uncomfortable with taking their shoes off. Those who do return, eventually blossom, she said.
“I had one young lady who came and would perform eyes down and closed off. Now she’s up in your face, smiling, arms fierce and just working [it]. So in that way you see them kind of grow out of the shells they arrive with,” said Jaco.
As a teen Jaco, discovered her love of dance through another after-school program organized by Gallery 37 during the summers. Her passion lead her to receive a master’s of arts management in youth and community development from Columbia College Chicago in 2007. In between, she’s choreographed music videos and trained Brad Pitt for his character development in “Burn After Reading.”
But Jaco said she’s more inspired by working with the youth.
Nowadays, she applies her studies to teaching life skills to the Austin students, but there is one issue among teens that has proven a challenge for her to tackle.
“One trend I’m coming across is teen pregnancy,” said Jaco. “We’re getting a few of our kids that are kinda of battling with that. So the other instructor and I kind are looking at that and saying, ‘Hey, how can we incorporate some awareness or kind of put that in as well as decision making skills as it relates to those types of choices?’”
As students stand up for one more rehearsal, Jaco reminds them they have what it takes.
“I’m just thankful to be able to do this and give back. This is my life’s work, I guess,” Jaco said.