The second the beat dropped the teens jumped forward in unison, snapping their fingers in time with the music and working through a complicated dance routine. They looked straight out into the audience never letting the bright auditorium lights or the cheering crowd break their concentration.
The teens, a mix of scholars from four Democracy Prep high schools were selected to spend three weeks of their summer learning dance, singing, acting, and filming as part of a summer arts conservatory with Applause Theatrical Workshops, an organization focused on providing a nurturing environment for talented, passionate kids who love to perform.
Teachers selected scholars for the program based on a mix of talent, grit, and commitment to arts education, says Jerry Phelps, Arts Education Director for Democracy Prep.
“My primary goal for our scholars was that they learn to work and create with people they don’t normally work with,” Phelps says. “It requires a different skill set to be able to dive in and create with people you don’t know.”
“I think a lot of them had no idea what they were getting themselves into,” says Applause founder, Audrey Kaplan about the rigorous pace of the program. “But the kids were incredibly focused; they wanted to learn everything we wanted to teach them.”
When asked what challenged and surprised them the most about the three-week program, the scholars’ responses varied from “learning a new song in one day” to “not believing that it was possible to perform a showcase after only three weeks,” but the most common response was the surprise of learning they were capable of trying and succeeding at learning new things outside of their comfort zone.
“I never thought singing was for me,” says Genesis G., a ninth grade scholar at Bronx Prep High School “I’ve always loved dancing, but they pushed me to start singing, and now I really enjoy it.”
Jaryd V., an eleventh-grade scholar at Democracy Prep Harlem High School said the program taught him how to be more patient. “When practicing for Twelfth Night, I would get frustrated when I couldn’t get something,” he said. “Now I know that if I keep working, I will get the dance step, and I’ll get the song.”
“There’s a lot of talent and some of the kids didn’t believe that when they first got there,” Kaplan said. “Many of them said, ‘I never thought of myself as an actor, dancer, or a singer’ and by the end of it, they all did.”
On their first and final night performing together, the scholars sang and danced their way through 12 songs from a variety of genres including hits by native New York artists and composers.
“To see them shine in their showcase was the greatest joy,” Phelps said. “I saw scholars who have struggled with trusting their instinct on the stage stand up and own every part of themselves and their art. They never stop amazing me.”