BROOKLYN — When the first kids’ class started 10 years ago at the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics — the Williamsburg home of cutting-edge choreographer Elizabeth Streb — there were eight students.
It was called “Hannah and friends,” named for the daughter of the dance company’s producing director, Kim Cullen, who created a high-energy class for the small group.
Today, more than 400 kids come running and flying each week through the converted garage for classes that range from "baby action” to “parkour plus,” and waitlists abound for several offerings, STREB’s education director Ashley Walters said.
For kids who dream of the spotlight and stage, there has been an explosion across the borough of dance, tumbling, acting and other performing-arts classes for babies up through teens. The venues run the gamut from the glassy Fort Greene home of the famed Mark Morris Dance Group to the Living Gallery, a scrappy Bushwick upstart that's busy getting the youth theater group Brooklyn Acts off the ground.
And yes, sometimes these classes do help turn youngsters into professionals.
Megan Mardiney’s children Mariah, 12, and Jackson, 11, started with the Brooklyn Children’s Theatre when they were first-graders and continue to perform there.
“It’s shaped their lives for sure,” said Mardiney, 49, a Park Slope mom who works at a design firm. “Their confidence level is off the charts. I really attribute that to all of the different risks they’re forced to make on stage and working with other people.”
Jackson, now in fifth grade, has a manager and is auditioning for different agents. Mariah, a seventh-grader, recently landed a paid gig to play Cinderella at a birthday party.
“Their teachers are fantastic. They really get to know every child and really push them and help them use their strengths,” Mardiney said.
Though she never did theater, Mardiney sees the joy in her kids’ faces.
“Singing is just so freeing,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
For kids who dream of being in the “Lion King”…
This year-old organization gets kids as young as 6 months moving to live drumming, said co-director Jimena Martinez.
“Any kind of creative art — and certainly dance and percussion — are an important way for kids to learn about themselves and they’re fun,” Martinez said.
“African dance feels very different from a ballet class or even a modern class,” Martinez continued. “Your body is learning to dance to different rhythms. There’s a fluidity, a high-energy level that comes with African dance. The kids are active. They learn self-expression. It’s physical and at the same time they’re getting to learn about other cultures.”
The center is already expanding its program, adding, for instance, a new African acrobatics class that incorporates flips and other energetic movements from African dance, Martinez said.
Cumbe, which hosts spring and fall sessions, is launching a two-week summer camp for kids ages 3 to 5 and 6 to 9, inspired by the Broadway smash “Lion King.” Children will learn a mix of dance, acrobatics and yoga. They’ll have an arts and crafts component, too, that will include making the set and creating costumes and masks.
The center is also partnering with the Urban Bush Woman for a one-week camp for teens, who will create a multi-media work focusing on an issue “where they can contribute to the community,” Martinez explained. And for the dedicated 8- to 13-year-olds, Cumbe recently added a performance workshop where 20 children will work with two professional dancers for a May 18 show.
(Cumbe is at 585 Fulton St., 2nd floor, 718-935-9700)
For kids who want to be the next Martha Graham…
Since launching nearly 25 years ago, BAX, as the Brooklyn Arts Exchange is known, has grown tremendously, serving nearly 1,000 students a year in its array of after-school, school break and summer programs, according to education director Lucia Scheckner.
The organization, which hosts professional artists “exploring their craft” alongside kids who are doing the same, has become a “true community presence,” she said.
“We’ve had people who have been part of the culture here from when they were little and end up coming back,” Scheckner said. Someone might have come to “a mommy and me” at 18 months and ends up at 18 years old graduating from a dance workshop and then comes back as a teaching artist.”
The creative movement and tumbling classes for toddlers along with the early drama — “drama-rama” — tend to be most popular and are known to have waitlists, Scheckner said. The most coveted spots are the invitation-only dancer performance workshops.
“There is an emphasis on improvisation, original choreography and partner work,” Scheckner said. “These are fundamental approaches one can extend in any facet of life — how do you work together and champion your ideas, and it’s really rigorous.”
Scholarships are available to those in need, Scheckner said. Roughly 20 percent of the students receive some sort of financial aid.
“What’s really remarkable is we have never turned away students who don’t have means to pay for the classes,” she said.
(BAX is a 421 Fifth Ave., 718-832-0018)
For kids who want to be the next Mark Morris...
The school at the Mark Morris Dance Center opened in 2001 with two studios and quickly expanded to seven with more than 1,100 kids enrolled there now. With Fort Greene’s baby boom, the parent/toddler movement classes have seen the biggest jump most recently, from three classes per week in 2009 to 17 classes per week this year, said school director Sarah Marcus.
“We open registration at 9 a.m. It fills up in 20 – 30 minutes,” she said of the eight-week session class.
The school also offers ballet, modern, tap, African dance, “boys dance,” jazz/hip hop dance and voice classes.
Though kids might rub elbows with Mark Morris in the elevator, the school emphasizes that it’s not pre-professional and welcomes dancers of all skill levels.
“This is a place where anyone can dance,” Marcus said, noting there’s a growing group of teens who had never taken ballet when they were little. “They didn’t have to start at 3 years old. It’s another entrée point for anyone who wants dance in their lives. There are no missed boats here. The school’s philosophy is based on Marks’ own experience as a young boy. It’s open, you can try different things, it’s not aggressive.”
That said, there is a parallel track for the student company for those who want to perform and “deepen their commitment,” Marcus said. In the past, faculty members would hand-pick students for this program, but it’s now open to all students.
“You don’t have to give up your life to be there,” Marcus said of the program that Morris himself visits. “You do have to audition, but we turn very few people away.”
(The Mark Morris Dance Center is at 3 Lafayette Ave.; 718-624-8400)
For the next crop of Off-Broadway actors…
Yazmin Colon, an owner of a clothing shop in Bushwick, wanted a place for her 12-year-old son to do theater at a price she could afford. So she helped Nyssa Frank, founder of the Living Gallery, start a program this winter that currently has 11 kids, ages 11 to 13, coming regularly.
For the last two months, the kids have been busy prepping for an April 13 fundraising performance. (The program presently has no funding.) They worked with artist volunteers on writing a play about topics relevant to their daily lives: bullying, racism, drugs, violence, gentrification, and identity, Frank explained.
Parents pay $10 a class for their kids, but there is a sliding scale for those who can’t afford that, said Frank, who hopes to make Brooklyn Acts into a community mainstay that is eventually self-sustaining.
“I wanted to offer an alternative creative outlet for the kids,” Frank said. “Yasmin was telling me they don’t have an outlet for their emotions. These kids have a lot of different stuff going on in their lives. This is an opportunity to express it in a positive way.”
(The Living Gallery is at 1094 Broadway; BrooklynActs@gmail.com)
For kids who want to be on “Glee” or “Smash”…
Amy White Graves started the Brooklyn Children’s Theatre in 2004 by standing outside of schools with fliers, eventually recruiting 13 kids.
Since then, the musical theater program has expanded to three locations: Fort Greene, Park Slope and Kensington. Each site offers a performance-based program with kids from first through 12th grades. Younger kids write their own plays and the students all get equal stage time.
“It’s to give the shy kids room to grow,” Graves said. “I call it communist theater because we really try to make sure every kid has the same size part,” she added with a laugh.
Teens do abridged versions of Broadway shows and are currently rehearsing “Fiddler on the Roof.”
There are 160 kids in nine different classes that start at $380 for a session. The organization gives scholarships to those in need and has granted more than $24,000 in scholarships for its spring season.
“My best experience as an actor was as a kid,” said Graves, a music theater educator and director. “It saved me. Middle school was terrible. Girls are mean. I had no one talking to me in eighth grade, but I had a whole other group of friends in the theater community.”
The kids become a support system, she added.
"We hold them accountable. One girl wanted to call out because she was sad," Graves recounted. They didn't let that excuse fly, and the other students lent their ears.
Performing in front of friends and family provides a rush like nothing else, Graves added.
“The adrenaline aspect is incredible,” she said. “You see kids always playing pretend. What kid doesn’t want to be on stage?”
(The Brooklyn Children’s Theatre is at three locations, office: 135 Prospect Park, 646-675-0325)
For kids who dream of Cirque du Soleil…
Classes at STREB are a mash-up of dance, athletics, boxing, rodeo, the circus and Hollywood stuntwork as kids, from 18 months through the teen years, learn daredevil moves, acrobatics and “aerial arts,” according to the organization.
Along with the kid explosion in Williamsburg and Elizabeth Streb’s expanding profile — her death-defying dancers bungee jumped off London’s Millennium Bridge and traveled down the spokes of the London Eye during last summer’s Olympics — the classes are in high demand. In the two years since Walters has been STREB’s education director, the program went from serving 170 children to more than 400, she said.
After the STREB adult company rehearses, the children take over the space from 3:45 to 5:45 p.m.
“It’s just two hours of pure, intense kids, flying and crashing,” Walters said. “It helps kids conquer fears like height and social anxiety. It takes so much — not muscles and strength, but teamwork.”
The kids then get to show off their skill at performances featuring the company dancers.
(The STREB School is at 51 North First St., 718-384-6491)