Laughs and New Horizons In California

Back: Angela Falk, Hannah Caton, Nick Podany; front: Miriam Gittens, Riley O'Flynn, Katie Garicia


This article is one of several about the 2016 Summer Engagement Grant recipients.

Our mission was to provide an introduction to the performing arts in an engaging and encouraging environment.


Place Oakland and Fresno, Calif.
Summer Engagement Grant Project Benefit concert plus workshops in three public schools
Participants Fourth-year dancers Angela Falk, Riley O'Flynn (Princess Grace Foundation, Andrew Willoughby, and Cara and Hiram Lewine scholarships), Miriam Gittens, and Katie Garcia (Irene Diamond and Edith Rosenhouse-Baehr scholarships); second-year actor Hannah Caton (Shubert, Bootsie Barth, and John M. Stix scholarships) and third-year actor Nick Podany (Mel Silverman and William J. Henderson scholarships)

We used our Community Engagement Grant to work with middle- and high-schoolers in Oakland and Fresno; we also gave a benefit concert and donated the proceeds to the arts center in El Salvador where we worked last summer, but were unfortunately unable to return this year. Our mission: to provide an introduction to the performing arts in an engaging and encouraging environment. Lack of access to the arts, whether for geographical or economic reasons, is a huge barrier for many students, and we hoped to help crack it.

We spent the first day at each school—two middle schools and a high school—performing dances and scenes and the next two leading workshops in creative expression and movement. It's often the unanticipated, unplanned-for moments that stand out most—the ones in which we found ourselves outside of our comfort zones, learning right alongside the students we were supposed to be teaching. Some of our favorites appear below.—Angela Falk

When we arrived, the students performed a hip-hop dance they'd prepared for us, and their excitement reminded me that the motivation to follow one's passion can stem from a childlike ferocity to pursue something so devotedly that it's the first thing you think about in the morning and the last thing at night. So we decided to scrap our day-one teaching plan and ask them to teach us their dance instead. At first, they were shocked and a little scared but then they rose to the occasion with the support of their teacher, and we became their dancers. A strong bond of trust developed as we asked questions and tried to delve into steps that were outside some of our comfort zones. Many laughs and new horizons later, we returned to our lesson plan the next day and found that the students weren't as self-conscious as they had been, and teaching them was more than a joy—it was a blessing.

A seventh-grader's embarrassed smile as she expressed her love for her teacher [at the school] is a memory that will stay with me for as long as I can foster it. And that got me thinking that we've all gotten to Juilliard because of a teacher's belief in us at some point. If we take the determination and devotion that these young performers showed us today, then tomorrow anything is possible.—Hannah Caton

Nick Podany introduced us to a simple, yet deceptively challenging game we ended up playing at every school—the challenge is that you can't, under any circumstance, break eye contact with your partner while moving around the room. When attempting to hold each other's gaze, most kids would laugh, their eyes would dart around, and it took a while for them to calm down and find the connection again. At the end of the exercise we had them remain still and observe their partner for five minutes, which is an undeniably long time to hold eye contact. The sixth grader I was paired with would hold my gaze for 10 seconds, and then look away and giggle. But then, ever so gradually, she began to hold my eyes for longer periods of time and stare at me as her genuine self. She continued to shy away, but she was making progress. As artists, we are constantly asked to reveal that honest side of ourselves, but that's not always easy, especially in sixth grade. The week we spent wasn't long enough to see if any of the seeds of inspiration we planted took root, but I've come to look at our time teaching as a challenge of seeing how many seeds of inspiration I can plant in a week's time.—Riley O'FLynn

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