Participants at 2011 Alvin Ailey camp have fun with an exercise at the Berkeley Marina, where sailing was also on the agenda. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Like characters in an ancient Roman frieze, eight young boys assume motionless poses, then spring to pumping, rolling, spinning life in front of the Zellerbach Playhouse on the University of California, Berkeley, campus.

It’s a rehearsal, but in light of the fierce pride and near-divine determination in their expression — and exploding from their agile bodies — it impresses as so much more. They are AileyCamp dancers, they are men-to-be, they are special.

AileyCamp, organized in Berkeley by Cal Performances every year, is a national program based on the principles of Alvin Ailey, an African American son of a single parent who made his way to the pinnacle of the dance world as a performer, choreographer and founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Along the way, he developed an ambitious philosophy: circumstances do not define the human spirit, and children are often the best place to look in order to learn life lessons. Expanding on his ideas, and using the Horton technique — the modern dance methodology behind the fearless, muscular physicality of the Ailey style — he focused AileyCamp on communication.

Cal Performances raises $250,000 annually to make the Berkeley-Oakland camp free to participants. Director David McCauley has led the  for 12 years. Overseeing an average of 50 sixth through eighth grade campers, all of whom attend on full scholarships, McCauley has seen a complete spectrum — a societal panorama.

“Every year is an adventure,” he said during an interview. This year, in addition to Horton, African, Jazz, ballet, creative communication and personal development classes, he created an all-male group. Derrick Minter is the former Ailey dancer charged with the group’s modern dance training.

Learning choreography from the Ailey repertoire. Photo courtesy of AileyCamp

“I come back each year because of the former campers who say I never gave up on them,” Minter said. A proponent of tough love, Minter tells the boys they can get in the camp’s “safe zone” and be changed, or go back to their neighborhoods and “miss the vision.”

Minter lost his father at a young age and said he “chose to be a better man, despite my reality.” He said the Trayvon Martin case stirred up a storm of fears in the budding dancers, most, but not all, of whom are African American.

“They understood it could have been them,” Minter said. “Kids these same ages are killing each other or are being killed by others for no purpose. They have a way out, through this camp.”

The discipline of dance teaches them physical control, cooperation, how to handle disappointment, and most of all, this year’s theme: listening.

“I should think a long, long time before I do anything,” said Skyler Hebron, 12, during a lunchtime interview session with all ten boys in the male group. “I say an affirmation every day about thinking more and that sticks in my brain.”

Eleven-year-old Israel Lee-LaFoucade discovered he is flexible, mentally and physically.

“I learned that when I talk to people, I can listen. It might save your life. If you listen, you might be ok,” he said. “I also learned I can put my foot behind my head.”

His fears — of heights and of losing his parents — he calls “common.” Listening will keep him safe, he insists repeatedly, before barreling across the cafeteria to grab lunch.

An audience favorite — the masked dancing duo. Photo courtesy of AileyCamp

Jesse Vergara-Garrison, 12, said he will listen in school because if he doesn’t, “I’ll lose.” Camp has knocked down his hesitation to step up in public, although he’s still working on the one-legged, 90-second balance he will perform in the camp’s free, public, end-of-camp show on August 1.

Zion Reynolds, 13, has always dreamed of being a “great West African dancer.” He says Minter is like a father figure “because he teaches us how to be our best.”

As a group, the boys say not listening can get you kicked out of a dance, perhaps their greatest common concern. They are agreed: Minter is funny, scary, strict and inspirational. And in a surprising, delightful burst of self-expression, three boys provide insight into the nature of being young, being challenged, and dancing.

“I have a fear that God will do anything. He controls everything, so He can take you out of the world. Like Trayvon. My dad — and inside of me, the will to be somebody and not be like everybody else — can keep me safe,” said 13-year-old Andre Burrows.

“The jazz class made my body motions quicker. I’ll use that in football,” declared Taqeé Ansarullah, 14. “I learned to solve my conflicts non-violently, using language. If somebody pushes me, I don’t have to push them back. I learned ways of not even being in that situation too.”

And finally, from 13-year-old Aaron Powell, words to fall sweetly on a dance teacher’s (or a parent’s) ears: “I like being able to express my feelings in dance. I’m strong, brave, and smart.”

Feed your soul, feast your eyes: Alvin Ailey is in town (04.25.13)
Alvin Ailey’s artistic director: Expanding dancers’ prowess (03.12.12)
First time sailors take to the water, conquer many fears (07.01.11)

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