While harried middle-class parents might worry about finding the time to chauffeur their kids to all their different after-school activities, low-income families have a different problem: They can’t afford these activities at all.
Dance lover Catherine Oppenheimer didn’t want to let money stand between kids and the chance to dance (which, with costumes, costumes, classes, contest entry fees, and shoes, is one of the most expensive pastimes).
Oppenheimer began her career as a professional dancer with the New York City Ballet. Her mentor there, Jacques d’Amboise, not only led the company in performing, but he also established the National Dance Institute in New York to give inner-city kids a chance to dance. When Oppenheimer retired from performing, d’Ambroise encouraged her to bring such a program to another group of needy kids in New Mexico.
So two decades ago, Oppenheimer went and founded the National Dance Institute of New Mexico (NDI). Last year, the program taught dance to 8,000 kids in 80 public schools in the southwest state, according to the PBS NewsHour. It costs $5 million to run the organization, but fundraising covers the bulk of that so the majority classes are free, including in-school instruction for fourth and fifth graders and after school classes for preschoolers and older dancers.
The program culminates in a big show that gives the kids a chance to shine, such as one that recently featured 500 dancers in the Santa Fe school district, as well as some of their parents and a group of local firefighters.
In a 2013 study that measured the health and well-being of American students, New Mexico ranked last among all states. But an independent study found that kids participating in NDI raised their grades in science and math and improved their physical fitness.
Sixteen-year-old Emery Chacon, who has been dancing with NDI since fourth grade, believes dance has made a difference in his life. “Yes, my grades before, they were moderate, from C’s to — like C’s and D’s, but now, actually, with NDI, it’s actually improved to B’s and A’s in most of my classes,” he told Kathleen McCleery of the PBS NewsHour.
Through the years, NDI New Mexico has produced a few professional dancers. But more importantly, it’s created many more dedicated students who continue to perform the right steps toward a promising future.