In a special ceremony at the White House on November 17, First Lady, Michelle Obama recognized 12 of America’s top after-school arts and humanities programs, and honored Honduras’ Organization for Youth Empowerment, as recipients of the 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. She warmly hugged all of the award recipients, and promised cookies at a reception after the ceremony.
In her opening remarks, Mrs. Obama, honorary chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, extolled the power of the arts to transform lives. As she related, the skills one acquires through a quality arts education boost critical thinking, which lead to success in the classroom and in the boardroom. Indeed, the arts should not be treated as a luxury. They are a necessity, and all children should have access to an arts education.
I am so thankful that I have had the opportunity to study dance, be inspired by great dance teachers, and nurture a lifelong love for dance. Most public schools in the United States have dropped dance completely from the curriculum, and dance training outside of school is typically very expensive. There is tremendous loss in not exposing more young people in this country to the art of dance. Youth from less affluent families miss out on a valuable form of learning, and certain bright talents remain undiscovered. More significantly, even for those who would never aspire to a professional career in dance, the discipline and teamwork dance requires, the self-confidence dance creates, and the intellectual curiosity dance fires up, as Mrs. Obama pointed out, can lead to better performance not only in school but in life.
I was especially excited to see a Washington, DC dance organization, CityDance DREAM, receive an award. CityDance DREAM is a free after-school program that brings dance training and performance experience to DC’s most underserved communities. Through DREAM, students also attend professional dance performances in the DC area. As part of the award, the organization will receive $10,000 and a year of communications and capacity-building support. No doubt the recognition and money will help propel CityDance DREAM forward, allowing the program to expand to reach more students.
On stage to receive their hugs from Mrs. Obama were CityDance DREAM Director Kelli Quinn and beaming student Valeria Cruz. Valeria, currently a high school senior, found a safe place in the organization, participated in weekly classes, became a teaching assistant, and is the first in her family to apply to a 4-year college.
Other awardees taking the stage included 12 New York City students ages 14-18 from Rosie’s Theater Kids, ACTE II (A Commitment to Excellence) Program. Mostly from low-income households, these students receive free musical theater training, which is enhanced by academic assistance and social services. They performed a spirited medley of songs written by alumni of New York Public Schools, ranging from George and Ira Gershwin to Paul Simon and Alicia Keys, thrilling everyone, including Mrs. Obama, with their talent and enthusiasm.
The future looks bright for all of the students enrolled in the award-winning programs. Hopefully, other similar programs will prosper, and an arts education will be available to an increasing number of America’s children.