Deedra Harris feels it’s important for students in her dance classes at Armstrong High School to express how they are feeling through the art of dance.
“I feel like these kids go through a lot on a daily basis that I haven’t had to face or see. It’s an outlet for them,” she says of dance. “So many of them have built-up energy they need to get out. They can come to class and let loose and be free, have a good time with music and move their bodies. It’s very important to have that.”
Her students will share their dance skills with the community at the RVA East End Festival 2019 on Saturday, June 8, at Chimborazo Park. The Festival has raised over $200,000 for music and arts programs in Richmond Public Schools since 2016.
The free family event features two days of arts and musical performances by local professionals as well as some of the city’s most talented youth musicians, dancers, and visual artists.
Proceeds from the festival support music and visual arts programs at the following Richmond Public Schools located in the East End community: Bellevue, Chimborazo, Fairfield Court, George Mason, and Woodville Elementary schools, Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, Armstrong High School, and Franklin Military Academy.
The festival hopes to exceed $100,000 in proceeds this year. “A priority for 2019 is to buy and install a new dance floor at Armstrong High School to support the popular and growing dance program there,” says the Reverend Marilyn Heckstall, pastor of Asbury Church Hill United Methodist Church and 2019 festival chair. “Money will go to all the East End schools as needs are assessed.”
Festival proceeds will help Harris turn the school’s former woodshop class into a dance studio, complete with a dance floor, mirrors, and ballet barres.
Currently classes are being held in the auditorium. “Having an actual dance studio will help students to open up more and be more passionate about dance,” Harris says, adding the new studio will be a sanctuary for students. “It will help them feel like they are being taken seriously. In the auditorium, they can’t see themselves so they can’t see their mistakes. The new studio gives them the ability to self-evaluate and self-adjust.”
Harris started dancing technically when she attended Henrico High School Center of the Arts. She majored in dance at James Madison University and studied modern dance technique in London at The London Dance Intensive Program. She has been dancing with a professional hip-hop company, Studio 4 in Richmond, for the past three years.
She taught ballet at the Henrico High School Center of the Arts before moving to Armstrong where she teaches modern, ballet, jazz, hip hop, African and Latin dance styles. She works with students in grades 9 through 12 and has about 100 students in total, 15 are members of the Armstrong Dance Company.
This is the first year for the dance program at Armstrong. Students had wanted dance classes for a while. “We were able to offer dance as an elective class,” Harris says.
Harris has boys and girls in her classes, but would like to see more young men participate. “The ones that come to my classes are really good after they get over the fear of being one of the only boys in class,” she says. “The company currently does not have any young men. but I am hopeful to have some next year.”
Her students are eager to learn, especially one young lady who wants to learn both dance and theater. “She has so much talent,” Harris says. “She helps me with choreography. She just finished appearing in Once On This Island and she came alive. It has given her an extra boost of confidence. In the past, she hasn’t had people to help her grow and find her voice.”
Performing at a community event like the festival will be good for the Armstrong Dance Company. “It’s important for them to get out of Armstrong and see what it’s like to perform in the community,” she says. “It makes a big difference when you get to be on stage in front of a lot of people. It boosts your confidence.”
It’s important to showcase what the students can do, she adds. “There is this image of what Armstrong is and what people think our students are. I don’t think the talent here gets showcased a lot. It’s important for our students to show the community they are educated students that are talented and passionate about what they do. It also helps motivate their peers in what they are passionate about.”
The East End Festival is a free community event at Chimborazo Park, Saturday, June 8, noon to nine, and Sunday, June 9, from one to five. The Richmond Symphony will perform under the Big Tent on Saturday. For details, go here.