World of Opportunities Expands Through Grace of CincyDance

It's not yet 8:15 a.m. and nurse Barb Wiley-Kroner has already seen at least a half-dozen patients since her shift began less than an hour earlier.

There's Sergio from Guatemala, an eighth grader, who follows Naomi, a first-grader from the Ukraine, through Wiley-Kroner's office door at the Academy of World Languages (AWL), a Cincinnati Public magnet school in Evanston. AWL's 610 students, in grades PreK through 8, come from nearly 40 countries and speak more than two dozen languages.

Nearly half the students in the school are not proficient English speakers, which makes Wiley-Kroner's job as the school nurse particularly challenging. Naomi, for example, has never seen a throat lozenge before. Wiley-Kroner looks into the petite young girl's eyes and slowly explains: no chewing, make it last at least an hour, come back if her sore throat doesn't improve.

Inside its still-shiny, three-year-old home on Fairfax Avenue, AWL touts the district's biggest and best ELL program - English Language Learning is more accurate than ESL since English is often at least the third language AWL students learn.

Native English speakers can only enroll up until Kindergarten, which helps keep the language learning high and the turnover rate low. The perks for students include a fresh twist on global perspectives. From Kindergarten on, non-ELL students receive weekly instruction in either Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Russian. Their classmates may come from Vietnam, Burundi, Nepal or Kyrgyzstan. Their teachers come from eight different countries.

"Some of our homerooms have between 10 and 13 languages in them," says Jill Smith, AWL's school resource coordinator.

From her vantage-point in the nurse's office, Wiley-Kroner knows them all, and in many cases, knows their families, too. Some are neighborhood kids. Some come from halfway around the world to live at the Ronald McDonald House in Avondale with their parents and a critically ill sibling. Many, like Nefan Deng, are refugees.

AWL is the only school the 10-year-old Sudanese refugee has ever known. The oldest of six children, Deng is a young woman of few words. She may seem shy, Wiley-Kroner says, but mostly, she is just careful. With the angled features of an African princess, Deng discovered that words aren't the only way to communicate last year, when teachers from the Cincinnati Ballet saw her natural talent blossom during a school-based education program called CincyDance

The six-week program, which celebrates its 15th season on Fountain Square this Saturday, targets third-graders in city schools where students may have no other exposure to ballet. Students receive in-school instruction, a close-up look at professional dancers and a chance to earn a scholarship for classes at the Cincinnati Ballet.

For Ballet Education Manager Julie Sunderland, CincyDance! isn't just about discovering raw talent. "You can connect with people in a way like no other," says Sunderland, who just completed her third season working at the Ballet. "All it takes is eye contact and a willingness to try."

This school year, CincyDance! visited more than 20 schools, from Erlanger, Kentucky, to Bond Hill. That translates into six weeks of ballet classes for 735 students. Sunderland tells of tough inner-city boys who love to jump but would never call it a "tour," and of girls whose natural grace and well-turned out "banana feet" make them excellent ballet students.

AWL students derive some extra benefits from the dance class, says Smith. "Because we have so many different languages, it's important that students have other ways of expressing themselves and bonding with each other," she says. "They are learning something together." In addition to the bonding, the exercise and the fun, the program also expands students' understanding of the intersection between arts and culture.

"CincyDance! exposes our students to culture they wouldn't otherwise experience," Smith adds. "Allowing them to express themselves through dance is a great way to prepare them to learn in the classroom."

Students who excel in CincyDance! may be asked to join ballet foundation classes on Saturdays at the Cincinnati Ballet. This year, 56 students were offered scholarships for next fall. The classes are free, as are leotards and tights for girls, t-shirts and tights for boys and shoes for all.

"One of the main goals is to take people from all over the city, to put everybody in a uniform and have everybody dance together," says Sunderland. Transportation is a challenge for a majority of CincyDance! graduates. It takes a village of volunteers, including Wiley-Kroner and Jane Portman, wife of Congressman Rob Portman, to ferry young dancers from their homes to downtown and back again.

"The ones I drive don't have the opportunity to participate in the arts, not because of lack of interest," says Wiley-Kroner, who brought two third-graders from Nepal to Cincinnati Ballet studios for class every week until the season ended in early May. Sunderland explains that CincyDance! graduates who excel in ballet foundation classes are offered scholarships to continue their dance instruction in more rigorous classes during their fourth-grade years. They take class a minimum of twice a week, though many go to at least three classes, including traditional ballet and musical theater.

Wiley-Kroner stands with Feng in Jill Smith's office at AWL and fake-leaps across the room as they talk about ballet. "I'm not a dancer," Wiley-Kroner says. Feng, who received one of the advanced scholarships this year, grins. Feng's posture is always perfect; her head always high; her dark eyes raised and focused on whoever is talking. She has been attending dance classes throughout the school year, she acknowledges, a small smile escaping from around the edges of her mouth. Like many pre-teens, she gives little information freely. But unlike them, she doesn't ignore a single word spoken to her as she manages to remain both aware and aloof. It's hard to elicit more than a "yes" or "no" from the elegant girl who travels between different worlds and cultures on a daily basis.

Yet, when it comes to ballet, she wants to find the right words, she wants to explain what this new world of dance has done for her, how it has changed her. She thinks for a moment in silence. She chooses each word carefully, because each word matters. Wherever next year, and the next, take her, Feng will carry that piece of ballet in her raised head, her gentle grace and her confident stride.

"It inspires me to dance wherever," she says.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Ashmita Subedi and Trishna Subedi at Cincinnati Ballet studio
Ashmita Subedi and Trishna Subedi
Barb Wiley-Kroner
Ashmita Subedi and Trishna Subedi at Cincinnati Ballet studio
Truc Nguyen and Minh Ahn Nguuyen
Truc Nguyen, Minh Ahn Nguuyen, Barb Wiley-Kroner, Ashmita Subedi and Trishna Subedi

See CincyDance's celebration on Fountain Square this Saturday, May 21, starting at 11:30 a.m. with a brief demonstration by students. At noon, help set a new world record for most people plie-ing at the same time, also on the Square. Both events are free and open to the public. Then head to the new School for Creative and Performing Arts on Central Parkway at 2 p.m. or 6 p.m. for the Otto M. Budig Academy's main division spring production. More information at the Cincinnati Ballet website.

Find out more about the Academy of World Languages 
at the annual International Festival from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. You can tour the building and hear students celebrating their own and each other's cultures. For more information, contact AWL.
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