How Berkeley’s AileyCamp enriches the lives of local children through dance

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The impact of legendary Black dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey continues to be felt even after he graced stages around the world. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is still a powerhouse dance company, revered for its eclectic dance techniques and variety. But apart from all the excitement of creating shows with professional dancers, an essential way in which Ailey carried on his legacy was through bringing the vast world of dance to children. 

Ailey’s dedication to youth led to the formation of AileyCamp, a six-week summer dance and community-building program for local young people to dive into four types of dance: modern (Horton technique), African, jazz and ballet. The program now has 10 locations across the United States. Cal Performances launched the Berkeley branch of AileyCamp in 2002. 

In an interview with The Daily Californian, David McCauley, the Berkeley camp’s artistic director and a student of Alvin Ailey himself, shed some light on how he brings the spirit of Ailey into the lives of the children attending the camp. During camp, he shows videos of Ailey’s work as well as interviews conducted with Ailey’s peers. He considers sharing his own experiences with Ailey to be the most important element of this education. “The flow of extraordinary people I met during that time was unbelievable. There were luminaries and future luminaries in dance, theater and music, in politics, in business and in religious and spiritual life,” McCauley said.

McCauley also fondly looked back upon Ailey’s interactions with “nonfamous” people. “Whether you were just passing by or standing by, you would notice everyone was important to him. What was learned when one was around Mr. Ailey was about much more than just dance,” McCauley said, and these teachings undoubtedly make up the foundation of AileyCamp.

McCauley emphasizes how he works to stay true to the free-flowing creativity of his dance teachers when teaching his own students. “When I am teaching, all of my teachers and mentors come with me,” McCauley reflected. “It is a must to bring all those teachers with me, because I never know who I am going to be teaching — and one of my teachers will share through me something that will resonate with a particular learner.”

AileyCamp prides itself on combining dance with personal development, helping shape the students from a creative and collaborative perspective rather than a sterile and detached one. McCauley asserted that AileyCamp is an interconnected system, where everything has some sort of relation to another aspect. 

This can be seen most prominently in the techniques taught in different classes. McCauley explained that each of the dance techniques has characteristics that resemble those in each of the three others taught. While there are key differences, there’s an undeniable similarity, which is also present in the self-growth components of the camp.

Looking ahead to the future, AileyCamp only hopes to improve itself. McCauley believes that the program itself does not need change. Rather, it’s the funding that needs to be revamped in order to sustain more students. The camp is currently free to all, supported by grants and donations from Cal Performances. Services provided to the students include no less than transportation, food, attire and field trips (and of course, the actual lessons themselves). According to McCauley, the cost per student is $6,000 for the duration of the program. “I do have a wish list,” he said, “and one of the things on the list is more funding to provide a bus to transport residents of Richmond to camp, and to be able to reach a few more campers.”

When asked about what the most rewarding part of camp was for him, McCauley replied: “It has been watching the young people who have attended camp grow up and go to college, several of them right here at UC Berkeley. I’d have to say it is rewarding and a privilege to take a part in providing a safe, fun and nurturing space for young people to develop.”  

What sets AileyCamp apart from other dance camps is its emphasis on accessibility to its students. The students not only reap the benefits of taking part in a nurturing and quality dance camp, but also the benefits of being in an environment where they are encouraged to unlock new parts of themselves. To McCauley, AileyCamp is more than just a dance camp; it’s a vessel for students to grow and embrace their identities.

Contact Pooja Bale at [email protected].