Courtesy of Michelle Jarcho '20

A volunteer for Ballet & Books mentors one of the 30 kids enrolled in the program at Southside Community Center in Ithaca.

September 27, 2018

Ballet and Books: Student Spreads Love for Dance and Literacy with Ithaca Youth

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Every Saturday, 30 kids from the Ithaca community gather at Southside Community Center to combine dancing and reading with the help of older mentors in the community.

Entering its second year, Ballet & Books, a program founded by students from Cornell and Ithaca College, serves local children by fusing dance and reading into fun lessons and providing one-on-one mentorships with older students in the community.

This literacy and dance mentorship program brings in different mentors from all over Ithaca, including Cornell, Ithaca College, and Ithaca high school students, and pair them with local children for reading activities.

Talia Bailes ’20, founder of Ballet & Books, began planning the program in Spring 2017 with the help of Kevin Swann, a student at Ithaca College, Michelle Jarcho ’20 and Liz Larsen ’20. The program’s purpose is to combat literacy issues and foster a welcoming community where children can develop self-confidence. The first students were enrolled in Fall 2017.

“I have grown up with a strong passion for dance, but I’m also extremely interested in medicine and public health,” Bailes said. “I wanted to combine these two interests.”

Before coming to Cornell, Bailes took a gap year in Ecuador where she taught English and ballet to local children. After this experience opened her interest in education and literacy issues, she worked with a physician the following summer, researching emergent literacy.

“Emergent literacy refers to the skills children gain before they actually learn how to read,” Bailes explained. “We try to answer questions like ‘how do we know that words are associated with meaning before we even realize what words are?’”

After gaining first-hand experience in literacy research and working in a primary care clinic that primarily serves low-resource children, Bailes brought her passions back to Ithaca by forming Ballet & Books with the help of Southside Community Center.

A lifelong dancer who “found a great community in dance”, Bailes added a movement aspect to the literacy program to help children improve their self-confidence.

According to Bailes, the program currently includes a mixture of kids from the Ithaca community, but it “primarily aims to serve low-resource families.”

In its first year, Ballet & Books served six to nine-year-olds in the community. After receiving a grant for expansion this year, Ballet & Books added a new program for three to five-year-olds.

“For the older kids, the mentors engage in one-on-one literacy activities with them so that the kids have someone to look up to,” Bailes said. “For the younger kids, we try to combine dance and reading in a more fused fashion.”

“For example, the kids dance to words in a book, or do movements to a poem, or listen to instructions in a song,” Bailes elaborated.

At the end of the spring semester, the program concluded with a dance performance at Bailey Hall with Pandora Dance Troupe, the dance group Bailes is in.

After just one year, Ballet & Books has become a popular program, with all 30 spots for the program filled.

“I hope we can expand to accept more kids,” Bailes said. “There is a long waitlist right now.”

Bailes hoped that Ballet & Books will keep going for many years after she graduate, “continuing its objective of making a difference and creating a community that fosters literacy and self-confidence.”

By bring in mentors from different schools in Ithaca, Bailes also hoped to create a tighter Ithaca community.

“This is a cool opportunity because I get to work with Ithaca College students, Cornell students, local children, and even Ithaca high school students,” Bailes told The Sun.

Recruitment for the organization “is more community-based and grass-root,” according to Bailes. They advertise through listservs and the Southside Community Center. Mentors are recruited through colleges and high schools.

Funding has also been a Ithaca-community effort. The original grant funding was from Cornell Traditions. The program received the Robinson Appel Humanitarian Award this year that gave them “a generous $1,500 for programming,” according to Bailes. They have also received a grant from the Friends of Tompkins County Public Library for $300 to buy each student a book to keep. Discounts from Body Gear, a local Ithaca dance store, and donations from Green Star help provide equipment and snacks. The program relies on donations and grants to help operate.

Laura McGrath ’20, a mentor for Ballet & Books, also enjoyed the community created by this program and likes “breaking out of the Cornell bubble.”

“By doing something small, you’re making a huge impact.,” McGrath said. “These kids come from so many different backgrounds, it’s great that they have a friend they can look up to and they know that there’s friend that’s gonna be there every week.”