Arts program keeps kids on their toes

November 02, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

THE KIDS AT Millbrook Elementary School in Baltimore County were enthralled by the trio of heel-and-toe- clicking dancers who performed in their auditorium last week.

The high-stepping terpsichoreans of Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble appeared courtesy of Young Audiences of Maryland Inc., a hard-working nonprofit that is one of the region's unsung cultural gems. Each year, Young Audiences sponsors visits by performing artists to hundreds of schools across the state, and during its 47-year history more than a million schoolchildren have benefited from its programs.

"The chance to work with kids on a continuing basis probably has been one of the most important professional opportunities we have had," says Footworks founder Eileen Carson, who started the group 17 years ago to perform at regional folk festivals.

"It's tremendously difficult to keep a dance group together that long," Carson says. "Young Audiences has really helped us develop, and now some of our most rewarding work is done in the schools."

Onstage, the dancers go through their routine with flying feet. Carson asks the students to clap and sing along with the performers, an invitation her audience accepts with gusto. She explains that percussive dancing -- sometimes called step dancing -- is distinguished by the use of the feet and hands to create rhythmic sounds.

Tap dancing, Appalachian clogging, French-Canadian and Irish step dancing and African boot dancing are all forms of step dance. Irish step dancing recently was popularized by the phenomenal success of the show "Riverdance" and its spin-off, "Lord of the Dance."

The kids are loving it. The dancers' program is designed not only to entertain but to instruct, and there clearly is method behind the madness of all that fancy footwork. During the program the dancers invite students to consider such questions as what is tradition, what is folk music and how television has altered our relationship to the arts.

"Whenever I get discouraged, I can visit any one of the programs we're sponsoring, and it lets me know what we're trying to do is worthwhile," says Patricia Thomas, executive director of Young Audiences.

Thomas celebrates her 25th year as head of the organization this year. The Maryland chapter of Young Audiences, which has counterparts in 31 other states, is the nation's oldest, and Thomas, its longest serving director, will be honored with a lifetime achievement award at the organization's annual fund-raiser Nov. 14 at the Peabody Library.

Last year Young Audiences sponsored 32 performing arts groups that presented more than 1,700 programs in schools across the state. Its roster includes two string quartets, two modern dance troupes, a ragtime band, folk musicians, storytellers, a ballet troupe, brass and woodwind quintets, a percussion trio and a choral ensemble.

"We feel the cutbacks in school arts programs over the years have made what we do all the more valuable," Thomas says. "Some of these groups we've worked with for many years. And we're always looking for new artists to develop programs with."

About 70 percent of the organization's $500,000 budget comes from fees paid by individual schools. The rest comes from state and county grants, private foundations and corporate gifts.

Last year, for example, the group got $55,000 from the Maryland State Arts Council, $10,000 from the Baltimore County Commission of the Arts and $2,000 from Baltimore City's Mayor's Committee on Art and Culture.

The group recently began a major renovation of its Calvert Street offices. The project, which eventually will cost about $200,000, is being supported by a $150,000 state grant and a $75,000 gift from the Clifford Charitable Trust.

Nearly every study suggests that the arts are a vital part of the educational process -- and that the earlier kids are introduced to them, the better. Arts instruction has been shown to encourage the development of vital learning skills like attentiveness, concentration and discipline, as well as nurturing children's ability to express themselves both verbally and nonverbally.

Young Audiences of Maryland has been in the forefront of efforts to bring arts and music to the state's schoolchildren for nearly half a century. Its creative programs, gifted artists and dedicated rTC administrators are an important, if often under-recognized, cultural treasure, one that has entertained, educated and inspired generations of Maryland schoolchildren.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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