July 20 2016 11:43 AM

Arts camp coaxes self-expression out of 60 Lansing-area kids

Thursday morning, at Lansing's First Presbyterian Church, dance teacher Clara Martinez led a mob of 9-to-13-year-olds in a romp through "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas.

Martinez, an instructor at Happendance, gave some directions to a line-up of jumpers and leapers. "You guys can chill out over here for a hot second," she said. A trio of flippers and floppers rolled across the floor. Forgive the non-technical terms. This wasn't exactly a master class with Twyla Tharp.

But it was in the ballpark.

"You guys are being very professional, and I appreciate your readiness," Martinez said. "Don't be afraid to add some secret dance moves if you so choose."

That last prompt for "secret" moves is the key to MADD (for "music, art, drama and dance") Camp, a free, two-year-old program that promotes self-expression through art for kids who might not otherwise get the chance.

Designed to take up the slack from shrinking public school art programs, MADD Camp threw about 60 young kids from Lansing, East Lansing and other area schools into painting, acting, singing and dancing workshops all of last week.

Camp director Megan Higle said about half the kids at this year's camp had minimal prior exposure to the arts.

"A lot of them are from schools where band and choir were cut, or they're not experiencing art on a regular basis," she said.

Supplies and other support for the camp come from the City of Lansing, which kicked in $700, and the church congregation. A team of nearly 40 volunteers, including about 10 high school students, helped with meals, snacks, registration, supply lines and general "kid wrangling."

"They all have to go to the bathroom at different times," Higle said.

A spoonful of discipline helped the kids put their inner selves out there in a most delightful way. Martinez called her dance workshop an example of "project-based learning," but it looked like barely controlled pandemonium.

Dance instructor Clara Martinez of Happendance (center, with hair flying) leads MADD Arts Camp kids through the free-form finale of "Dancing in the Streets."
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

In "Truck Stop," a dance by the 5-to-8- year-olds, the kids devised ways to mime various foods, laying flat as pancakes, shaking to represent coffee, oozing like syrup and so on.

"Sometimes it may not seem like dance, but Clara can turn a gesture into a dance move organically," Higle said. "Some of them may not have realized they have rhythm, or can move their arms expressively."

When Martinez asked them to use their bodies to become their favorite foods, most of them made a pizza-slice-shaped triangle — except for one boy, who stood up straight and announced himself as asparagus.

Martinez modeled the workshops on "Braindance," a pedagogical strategy based on the first movements babies make.

"A lot of different body types feel comfortable, and you don't have to be a dancer to understand it," she said.

Though most of the kids were untrained in dance — and some cried at the very prospect of it — they were coming up with their own moves by the second day. Martinez didn't shy from sneaking dance terms like "distal" into the workshop.

"They're highly intelligent, they can go with it," she said.

On the first day, some kids panicked while others sat on the sidelines, too cool for school.

Martinez soothed the criers with simple, fun moves they couldn't resist and let the skeptics be skeptics. "You just let them believe they're too cool, and that you're watching and supporting them," Martinez said.

Instructor Ben English unexpectedly rose from the dead at a drama workshop with MADD Arts Camp kids last week.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse
Meanwhile, in another room, "Mr. Ben" (drama instructor Ben English) padded barefoot through a thicket of children, most of them in statue mode. A week of coaxing antsy kids into dramatic tableaux gave him a slightly frazzled air.

English told the group it was time for someone to do a monologue. There was a mild sigh of protest — more kids wanted to talk than listen — until he reminded them that being an audience was an important part of drama.

"I'm going to pick someone who is kind and nice and listens well," he said with a slightly wistful air.

In the art room, instructor Philip Luckhurst helped the kids draw and paint self-portraits and images of food in several media, including watercolor and charcoal.

At the camp finale Friday, the kids sang, danced and told stories, cheered on by a group of parents and well-wishers. In keeping with the "food" theme of the week, they sang "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Pure Imagination" (from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"). Tables were festooned with kid art, including aprons that doubled as coats of arms emblazoned with each kids' favorite things — robots, turkeys, American flags and mottos such as "Skye is my friend."

Emily Wise of Lansing, 8, offered an almost alarmingly articulate exegesis.

"We had these aprons, and because we were going to use them throughout the week, we got to color on it and do what we wanted on it," she explained. "But first we had to draw a banana."

The Truck Stop dance was a highlight for her. Suffice it to say she wasn't one of the pizza kids.

"I was chicken parmigiana — noodles, chicken and tomato," she explained.

Kiran Miller of Lansing, 6, enjoyed the games with "Mr. Ben," especially "statue time." In the art workshop, he sketched a battle between Marvel's Black Panther and Spider-Man 2099 (the future, Latino Spidey). He plans to come back next year.

While reminiscing, Miller fended off calls from fellow MADD camper Sarah Rahimo of Lansing, playing on the church steps.

"I'm going to be on the newspaper," he called back at her.

Undeterred, Rahimo, 4, scampered over and gave her take on the camp without being asked. Playing with dough was her favorite part.

"We squished it with our fingers," she said.

What food was she?

"I was a pizza," she said with an epic grin.