Cornell University students combine ballet, books

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Most Saturdays during the school year, 4-year-old Gemma Phipps heads to the Southside Community Center with her mom to practice her arabesques, her plies and her reading skills.

Phipps is one of 32 children participating in Ballet and Books, a program organized by Talia Bailes ’20, who’s studying global and public health sciences in the College of Human Ecology. Bailes started the program, now in its third year, to boost literacy among children from pre-K through third grade.

Bailes danced and taught during high school and then spent a year teaching young students in Ecuador. She came back interested in child development and literacy, so she worked in a pediatrician’s lab in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, to learn more about how literacy, race, poverty and other factors affected children’s health.

“I really believe in community engagement, so when I came to Cornell, I was looking for ways to get involved, and I started working with Southside,” she said. “I wondered how I could be an agent of change and combine the development of children’s minds with dance.”

Southside leaders were excited about the idea, especially matching their young students with college and high school mentors.

Each Saturday, the 3- to 5-year-olds take part in an hour of dance fused with literacy activities. Older kids, ages 6-9, dance for 45 minutes, followed by 45 minutes of reading and movement with mentors from both Cornell and Ithaca College, as well as Ithaca High School.

On a recent Saturday, the young ballet students learned a routine from the Cornell Phenomenon Step Team and then showed off their own routine at the Tompkins County Public Library. In the spring, the students in the program will perform on the Bailey Hall stage as part of the Pandora Dance Troupe’s spring concert.

“I got into reading at a late age, and I feel like it would have been so much better for me to have been exposed at a young age,” said Liz Rurangwa ’20, a biology major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who works with the young dancers.

Judy Liu ’21, a human development major in the College of Human Ecology, said the program helps with more than just dance and reading skills.

“I’m really passionate about working with kids, so I started as a mentor,” she said. “When I was little, I was shy, and I see that reading aloud really builds up confidence in these kids. And seeing someone in college who looks like you helps these kids realize they can achieve great things.”

Community partners include BodyGear, the Children’s Reading Connection, the Family Reading Partnership, the Ithaca City School District and the Tompkins County Public Library.

After dance and reading time, Gemma Phipps shows off her steps and her routine. Her mom, Meryl Phipps, said she is happy to perform her dance for any visitor.

“There are a lot of dance studios in town, but this one is much more accessible financially and culturally for all families,” Phipps said. “I also love that the teachers are college students because they are such good role models.”

Though Bailes is graduating in May, the Cornell chapter of Ballet and Books plans to continue, with younger students ready to take over.

Kathy Hovis is a writer and social media manager in Cornell’s College of Arts & Sciences. East Hill Notes are published the first and third Wednesdays of each month in Tompkins Weekly.

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