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Using dance to mentor urban youth and adults

Monday - 5/6/2013, 12:38pm  ET

Urban Artistry is a nonprofit organization that promotes creativity through a variety of dance genres. (WTOP/Hoai-Tran Bui)
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Hoai-Tran Bui, special to

WASHINGTON - When Junious Brickhouse returned to D.C. from serving in the United States Army for nearly a decade, he didn't return with war stories. He returned with dance.

While living on a base in Europe, Brickhouse met a host of dancers and artists who mentored him creatively and emotionally. But when he came back to his Virginia home in 2005, he was surprised to see that there was no space in D.C. for talented urban dancers to share and express their love of dance, similar to what he experienced in Europe.

That is why he decided to begin Urban Artistry, a nonprofit organization that promotes creativity through a variety of dance genres.

"What I was looking at was a lot of talented people in clubs and in gyms who were trying to figure out what's possible with dance," Brickhouse says. "And for a lot of common folk who just love movement and music, it's hard to see that far ahead. So I wanted to bring a little of the future and bring it to the present, and give them an idea of what's possible."

For the first couple of years, Urban Artistry focused on an after-school dance program that operated as an educational program for at-risk youth. However, Brickhouse, who is now the executive director of Urban Artistry, questioned if the organization was reaching the heart of the matter by only mentoring children.

"I thought about a lot of the kids that I was working with, and they were really energetic about dance and about being a part of the group and being a part of something that they could get respect and notoriety for," Brickhouse says. "But I saw a larger problem, a deeper problem. I saw that a lot of them didn't have enough people in their lives that could help them build self-esteem and let them know that the things that they wanted to do were possible, and that they have value."

The organization shifted its educational purpose to become a mentorship program for adults who teach kids dance. While Urban Artistry still focuses on teaching middle-to-high school kids dance technique, Brickhouse and Urban Artistry's Director of Operations Emily Wessel decided teaching adults that can then teach children is even more essential.

"A lot of the people that were helping the kids, they hadn't healed from their childhood issues around dance," Wessel says. "And so, you can't give away something you haven't got. So we thought, ‘OK, well we can empower the mentors in our organization who are working in these programs with the skills that they need to be more effective. And then we can also teach other adults to do that.'"

Brickhouse notes that Urban Artistry's education component stands out from other dance nonprofits because of this particular focus on adult dance education.

"In the nonprofit world everybody wants to help the kids," Brickhouse says. "There's money out there for the kids, so everyone wants to help the kids. But the adults need help, too."

Starting from scratch

Brickhouse and Wessel started molding the positions in the organization into one that would follow the new education objective of dancers mentoring other mentors.

Wessel explains that the current directors and staff of Urban Artistry, many of whom were already teaching and leading dance crews, were difficult to find since they had to be "willing to do the character building that it requires to be a mentor."

"We went through a good amount of people before finding the ones that were really committed to (learning how to teach others)," Wessel says.

Today, Urban Artistry has 11 artistic directors, 12 operations staffers and a group of nearly 20 dancers. But it's continuing to grow as it collaborates with dance groups outside of D.C. and even outside of the country.

"We've built our foundation, but we felt like we've barely scratched the surface," Wessel says.

As fairly young dancers in the D.C. area, Wessel and Brickhouse struggled with establishing themselves as people who can lead other adult dancers in the community. Wessel says it is because of more established dancers, like Urban Artistry Artistic Director Brent Talley, one of the first b-boys and crew leaders in D.C., that the organization was able to approach the problems within the dance community.

"We couldn't have done much with this area if we didn't have the investment of the elders like Brent," Wessel says. "Because we wouldn't even have really known what the problems were to solve. You can't just come into someone's community and be like ‘You have these problems, and I'm going to solve them!' That's a little arrogant. But we needed to know what we actually needed to change."

Urban Artistry has certainly seen a fair amount of change, itself, since it first submitted its mission statement of "education, performance and competition."

The organization has branched out from its original mission statement, doing everything from writing curriculum for university programs, to teaching dance abroad with the State Department, hosting foreign dancers in a global exchange program, opening after-school dance classes to the public and hosting its own competitions.

"We're still hungry. I think that's the important thing," Brickhouse says. "We're still hungry to help people. Not everyone wants help, and that's respectable, too. But to have it, for the people who do, that's divine, man. That's the kind of work I want to do."

International Soul Society

In 2008, Urban Artistry began hosting the International Soul Society Festival, a collaborative week-long event featuring artists and dancers from across the globe.

The festival includes everything from live painting demonstrations by urban artists, to dance battles, MC and DJ battles and public dance classes. Now in its fifth year, the festival runs May 6-12.

The brainchild of Brickhouse, the International Soul Society Festival began when he wanted to introduce his students at Urban Artistry to the artists and mentors he had first met while living on a military base in Europe. These mentors gave Brickhouse a global perspective on dance that he felt was important to share.

"Instead of just mimicking what they saw or what inspired them, they tried to make something to change the dance with respect; to actually add something a part of their culture to it, something that's familiar to them," Brickhouse says of his dance mentors. "So I think that's why the dance is international, because what we see now in all these dance forms is a mix of different perspectives that have come to the dance over the years."

The festival highlights the different passions of all of the organizations' members.

"We want people to understand that hip-hop is not just an American art form, that urban dance and music and culture is not just an American art form," Wessel says. "They are social things that we do here in America but there is a global perspective that can't be denied at this point in the history of those cultures."

The festival also has the support of the many embassies, allowing Urban Artistry to book guests from Germany, Denmark and more. Wessel states that the community support from the embassies has been "critical in developing the international event."

Although urban dance and art is still a fairly underground movement in the D.C. area, it has the capacity to bring dancers from across the globe to the International Soul Society festival.

"We see that with hip-hop and house dance and b-boying today, you know, people are doing these dances all across the world and making their own contributions to the dance styles," Brickhouse says. "They're sharing with each other and growing their culture as well as their community. I think that's proof that it is a common language, that people understand each other through art."

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