Dancers know it first-hand: intensive dance programs can catalyze remarkable growth – that which they might have never known was possible. Those from underserved communities may in particular find their conception of the possible and personal/artistic growth exceptionally expanded from such experiences. They can also network, enhance their own well-being, and be part of vital intercultural understanding – all in ways that can make all the difference along their personal and professional path.
Dance4Hope, an NYC-based 501c3 non-profit organization, has a clear and committed mission of expanding such growth, well-being, and intercultural understanding. The organization provides free performing arts classes to immigrant and refugee children as well as other underserved youth. These creative and communal experiences can begin to address the disparities in access to art, therapy, and education that are present in our culture.
If we can believe in our youth, in all that they are and can do, then we can believe that something better is possible.
The person behind the difference: Hope Easterbrook
At the helm of Dance4Hope is Hope Easterbrook, who founded the organization in 2018. Easterbrook is a former cast member of Hamilton on Broadway. Having lost both of her parents at a young age, she also has first-hand experience with the ability of the arts to save lives. Through that, Easterbrook can access a deep and personal connection with youth experiencing trauma.
She’s aimed to use her success in the dance and musical theater industry, in conjunction with that personal connection, to feed her passion of giving back: to the underserved, underrepresented, and unheard in particular. In so doing, she guides those she serves to experience more than they had ever imagined was possible.
That purpose began in earnest earlier in 2018, when Hope served as a dance educator in Rwanda with MindLeaps – an organization that offers dance and movement to youth in developing nations in order to address educational and socioeconomic inequities. In Africa, Easterbrook “fully discovered the true power of dance,” she shares (dance4hope.com). “Dance transcends. It has the ability to connect us all, regardless of background, race, life experience, age, gender, sexual orientation, and even language.”
Dance programs for hope, for healing, for possibility
After launching, the organization got right to work – and kept branching out to offer dance workshops to more and more people in need of healing, connection, and creativity: children of Latin American migrant families, inner-city youth, and undocumented women.
Calling upon music and dance from the students’ cultures, such as Bachata with Latin American migrant children, has further fostered connection and understanding. Proof of concept lies in outcomes from that approach: for example, there was one child who hadn’t talked for days, but after a Dance4Hope class she finally opened up and used her voice. This is making a difference, even in seemingly small ways, in the Dance4Hope way.
Of course, connecting and sharing cross-culturally also calls for sensitivity (there’s a danger of, even with the best intentions, engaging in harmful behaviors such as cultural appropriation). Easterbrook firmly believes that it’s important to have representation in leadership of those whom you’re seeking to serve – for instance, through a Board Member like Dance4Hope’s Paola Hernandez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico.
With such persistence and care in its approach, Dance4Hope kept growing and formalizing their work. The organization gained 501c3 status in January 2019. Even COVID couldn’t fully halt this impactful work; “in the midst of a lockdown, Dance4Hope was able to offer virtual learning through arts and mentor driven leadership,” notes Easterbrook. “Now more than ever, we can see how impactful this type of education can be on a young person battling life's challenges.”
Puerto Rico: Dance4Hope steps beyond the continental US
Another big organizational milestone came in July of 2021 with Dance4Hope’s first time bringing dance outside of the continental US: musical theater intensives offered in partnership with San Juan-based Slay Dance and Taller Artistico Caguas (also in Puerto Rico).
These dance programs offered access to rigorous, high-quality dance and musical theater education – the kind that's not readily available in Puerto Rico, notes Easterbrook. She shares more about the who, what, and why’s of these programs:
Students ages 11-20 participated in these intensives. They underwent concentrated vocal coaching, learned original Hamilton choreography, and received motivation and inside tips on navigating financial stability as young artists and students.
Not only were youth provided with direct artistic guidance from professionals, but they also enhanced their confidence, heightened their support for one another and were given a platform to use their voice.
For many of them, it made a huge difference to have a supportive space where they could get up and perform, and through that get over the fear of doing that. For many of them, that fear was really the only thing getting in their way. For example, some of them had never sung before. But overall, they really exceeded the expectations we had for the talent we’d get.
Dance programs to find more than you imagined possible
That supportive space, and Easterbrook's connection with the students, didn't just stop when Dance4Hope left Puerto Rico. She became a mentor to many of these students, for example, and in so doing has stayed connected with them long after July of 2021. That's not only been meaningful for the students, but has also spurred tremendous growth in leadership and mentorship for her, Easterbrook shares.
Because of those ongoing relationships with Easterbrook, one of those students even got the attention of Broadway casting directors. That's despite him not having much singing experience and not being all that confident in his vocal skills. During the summer intensive, Easterbrook heard his natural vocal ability and reassured him that he really does have it.
A few months later, there was a virtual open casting call for a big-name Broadway show – and Easterbrook urged this student to go for it! He heard back from the show’s casting team that while they didn't have a role for him at the time, they saw something special in him and asked to stay connected. "To hear even that back, to get noticed in that way, that was huge – and showed him that those big dreams can really happen someday!," Easterbrook notes. She adds that without the confidence that this student built in Dance4Hope programming, none of that would have happened.
Beyond this student, and those like him who've benefited from Easterbrook's guidance, Dance4Hope dance workshops allowed these artists to take even more pride in their community – and also further brighten that community itself.
The students had the opportunity to perform "The Schuyler Sisters", from Hamilton, in their town center. Family and friends could be there to experience their talent and the fruits of their hard work. "And that's their city!," Easterbrook beamed; students could imagine that they were singing about their city, “...the greatest city in the world!”, rather than New York City – and through that feel more genuine pride in all that is.
Stepping forward: dance programs expanding and creating hope
This work and mission didn't stop there, even apart from Easterbrook's ongoing connection with students: Dance4Hope will be returning to Puerto Rico to offer the workshops again this July (of 2022). Easterbrook is also taking the first steps to potentially offer this programming in Hawaii.
Her ultimate dream is to keep expanding in order to bring these workshops and classes to more and more places: maybe even someday dance across borders, bringing their dance outreach beyond US states and territories. Sharing their educational programming to Puerto Rico helped to "work out the kinks" in taking it beyond the borders of the lower 48 States, and demonstrated to her and her board that doing so really is doable, Easterbrook explains.
Dance transcends. It has the ability to connect us all, regardless of background, race, life experience, age, gender, sexual orientation, and even language. - Easterbrook
She also dreams of offering outreach education in a storefront location in NYC – where youth in the city from all backgrounds can have access to excellent performing arts education: free or low-cost, culturally competent, challenging yet also 100% supportive and approachable.
It can be easy to feel despondent and cynical these days, with everything that we – as a global community – are facing. Yet if we can believe in our youth, in all that they are and can do, then we can believe that something better is possible. This is how Dance4Hope is making a difference: fostering artistic and therapeutic growth within its students, and thereby making them better positioned to help us meet the challenges of this ever-changing world.
All in all, Dance4Hope provides a platform for young people to lead, reach closer to their potential, and simply find more joy and ease each day. Through that, they can experience more than they ever believed was possible. “If I can change just one life, then all of the hard work will have been worth it,” affirms Easterbrook.