Kids Dance Outreach is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization that brings high-quality arts education and performance opportunities to elementary schools around the city. Indy’s Child spoke with Michael J. Johnson, Founding Director, to learn how his program of encouraging creative expression is impacting our local kids.
You attended Butler University before becoming a professional dancer with the Boston Ballet. How did that lead you to starting Kids Dance Outreach?
I know the power of the arts and what they’re able to do for children’s development. I had a fantastic career in Boston working with dancers, choreographers and musicians from all over the world. Then Butler University called me to be a visiting professor. As soon as I came back to Indianapolis I saw a need for a high-quality dance program. No one was doing that here on a large scale with the benefit of the kids as a top priority, so I said, well, I have to do it. That’s when I started Kids Dance Outreach.
How does your organization bring dance to the community?
We partner with elementary schools around Indianapolis and work with their children for a semester or sometimes for a whole year. By the end of our time together they are ready to show off to the school and their families what they’ve been working on. With the arts there’s no instant gratification. It takes weeks and sometimes months for a child to dance well. When an audience stands up and cheers for what these children have accomplished, it’s a feeling they never forget.
Your organization has an innovative adaptive dance program for kids with disabilities. Can you tell us more about that?
The first adaptive dance program we started was for kids with Down syndrome. This semester we’ve split into two levels, beginner and experienced, because of the demand. It’s so rewarding to see the growth, the improvements in confidence and the kid’s achievements. Sometimes they’re very simple achievements and sometimes they’re dramatic.
We also have a project called the Imagine Project for children of all abilities. The class is designed to bring children together. Some of our experienced children in the elementary schools come and dance alongside kids with spina bifida or cerebral palsy or kids with other challenges. It’s beautiful because these children are making friends across these situations where they might not have ever come into contact with each other. If we’re able to bring children together, then maybe all of us adults can learn something.
What does Kids Dance Outreach need most from the community?
We don’t charge children to participate in the program. Since we began in 2012 we have worked with 8,500 kids and haven’t charged a single child. We want all children to be able to participate and grow through our programs. If we were a traditional arts school, we would be charging children and that would exclude so many kids that couldn’t afford this opportunity. So, we need donations and corporate sponsors to keep our programs running.
Why is what you do at Kids Dance Outreach so important?
There’s so much financial support for sports, especially around Indiana. Sports teach teamwork – that’s positive and excellent. However, there are a lot of children that are more drawn to the arts. What we are doing with dance is no less important than what any sports program can teach children. The arts also have the ability to bring people together from different backgrounds, religions and preferences. It opens people’s minds and forges friendships. That’s the power of the arts.
To learn more about Kids Dance Outreach visit their website at https://kidsdanceoutreach.org/.