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Building a Better Foundation for the Arts in Cleveland

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Third-year dancer Nehemiah Spencer founded his Cleveland-based Nehemiah Project last year and received a Juilliard Summer Grant to continue this year. During the five weeks of dance classes, he and three fellow graduates of the Cleveland School of the Arts and another dancer taught 74 students ranging in age from 5 to 22. The work culminated in a showcase that the group performed at local nursing homes and then in a final concert, a benefit that raised money for a scholarship for one of the participants. After it was over, Spencer spoke with The Journal about the experience.

Nehemiah Project in Cleveland

In its second year, the Nehemiah Project tripled in size. The summer outreach program offered dance classes to youth from the age of 5 to 22.

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How did you find the students?  
It was open to anyone who was interested in being a part of our journey. As long as they were committed and dedicated to the program, we would give our all to bring out their best. 

You went from about 25 kids last year to 74 this year. Did you mean to ramp up that much? 
I honestly didn’t expect such a turnout. I expected to see the usual dancers that I work with from my old high school. But seeing all the fresh raw talent that came out, hungry to learn and dance, made it more exciting to pull more information out of the dancers, which in turn allowed them to surprise themselves with their own natural gifts. I believe any teacher would agree with me that teaching a group of hungry students makes the job a lot easier. 

What was one of the biggest challenges you faced?
Since we had such a range of dancers, one was how to separate them. We eventually decided to split them up by age, which is common, but some of the younger dancers had a good understanding of dance technique while some of the older ones were dancing for the first time.  So for next year, we are creating a program that’s more focused on the individual and not on the majority. But this summer’s structure did allow the students with dance backgrounds to step up and be leaders and role models to the new dancers. That also allowed them to grow more quickly than they would have in a room full of more experienced dancers. 

What were some highlights?
One was that as we were volunteering, I witnessed the young dancers transform into inspiring healers. Another was at the college benefit concert—we raised money for a high school graduate to go toward any unmet needs before entering college. It was also the final performance and the dancers not only got to showcase their hard work but also to broadcast their newly developed skills, such as confidence, performance quality, and consistency. 

What’s the first thing you’ll do to plan for next year?
Think about ways to get the community more involved. I noticed that once people heard about the program, they were excited to be part of it. Our creating ways for the community to be a part of what we’re doing will educate them on the importance of art and help create a better foundation for the arts to blossom in Cleveland’s at-risk communities. 

Do you have any advice for someone planning a similar project?
I would say just remember where you came from. You were not always as good as you are now, and you’re not as good as you will be. If you can help guide and mold someone like others have done for you, go for it. You’ll learn more about yourself than you think.

What do you wish you’d known beforehand?
Honestly, nothing. The whole idea of learning from my mistakes and success will only make me more knowledgeable and experienced. If I never learn from my mistakes, how good a teacher would I be? 

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