Discovering the Heart and Soul of Detroit

Driving through the streets of Detroit, there is a sense that this is a forgotten city, or at least abandoned. Overgrown lots and boarded up windows are in great abundance while in many neighborhoods, people seem to be a scarcity. During our team tour of the downtown area, the question “Where are all the people?” was asked. The answer is—there aren’t many. The city’s population has fallen below one million, a dwindling number for the once-upon-a-time metropolis. However, with a second look and some time spent in the city, it becomes clear that abundance of people has no relation to the amount of openness, care, and character of Detroit’s citizens.  


Officially known as Detroit Arts Immersion 2010, our team of four Juilliard students—dancer Brittanie Brown, bassist Alli Job, actor Mark Junek, and me—plus local Detroit visual artist Phil Simpson, experienced first hand the heart and soul of the city after spending a week teaching nearly 70 students, ages 14 to 22, who have experienced such life circumstances as homelessness, abuse, neglect, foster care, and parole. In addition, our group, which was funded in part by a Juilliard Summer Grant, performed for more than 600 people at five locations throughout Detroit. We worked to share each of our disciplines in fun and engaging ways. In other words: activities, games, and freedom to create. Our teaching goals became communication, respect, confidence, and expression. So it was wonderful to hear from staff at the Covenant House of Michigan that after just one day of our program the youth were more open and comfortable with one another as well as with staff members. This really became apparent to us when, after teaching Forsythe dance improvisation techniques, each student took a turn free-styling in the center of our circle; or when we tackled drama improvisation games and the entire room focused on the scene at hand, responding to and enjoying their peers’ creative minds. And it’s impossible to forget the expressed interest in a variety of musical genres and the open discussion we had about interpretations of each piece. The growth of the participants throughout the week was apparent, too. Our first drama impovs were full of great ideas, but often too many ideas and not much dialogue. But, with some guidance, explanation, and examination, students were soon taking on characters and developing scenes (today’s N.B.A. stars in a taxi was one of my favorites!). 

We were even lucky enough to have each one of our students see us perform at least once in our two Wednesday evening performances. This is when the reality of the mutual relationship of sharing between the team and students really hit home. It was here, during our Q&A after the show, that a student who had only worked with us for one day stood, thanked us, and encouraged not only us, but everyone who had learned from us to continue sharing with the world. She called on the entire audience to pass on the positive thinking and with a brave, beautiful speech, she instructed everyone in courage and confidence. These moments became the reinforcement for our program and the inspiration for what we were doing each day.  

Our final day of teaching was remarkable. Every single student we taught shared.  Whether it was a poem, song, dance, point of view, personal story, or other form of expression, each person we had worked with stood up and shared wholeheartedly (and this was not mandatory, simply optional). There was a young man who said, “I don’t sing, but I’m going to sing,” and with that began a marvelous Motown duet, enhanced with dancing. There was a teenage girl who told us the program made her “a positive person” and that we were “a big influence in her life”; and another who performed an original song. There were many, many more who shared personal drawings and poems; even one young man who performed choreography he learned throughout the week from us. Then it was time for our goodbyes, which were the most difficult thing we had done all week. We presented the students with art supplies, reading materials, lists of contacts to continue their arts education, and a handwritten thank you card. As each member of our team expressed thanks for the experience we had been given, it was hard to keep emotions and tears at bay. We had learned so much and made real connections with each person present in the room. One student made it easier by reminding us, “It’s not goodbye, just see ya later.” That is the hope for this program and Detroit. We will not leave; we made a connection and have forever left our mark. It is with such care and effort, as we experienced, that these positive influences will live on and the citizens and city of Detroit will see growth. On that thought we finished our time with a final expressive exercise, called “Rocket Ship,” taking turns leading and shouting as a group, “I am wonderful! I can create!


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