Moving in the Spirit's Dance and Youth Development Curriculum

What if a dance class could teach confidence, resilience, and cultural empathy to kids who need it most?

Photo of Heather Infantry
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In 1986, founder Dana Lupton witnessed the power of dance to motivate youth in the fractured community of Atlanta’s Techwood Homes public housing project. Struggling to connect with children whose experience of growing up was very different from her own, Lupton joined some teens in an impromptu dance party. Seeing their amazement as she adopted their style of moving, she realized how empowering and accessible a language movement could be. Lupton created Moving in the Spirit with the understanding that dance offers youth a tool for connection and a means for transformative self-identification. She devised a curriculum using dance to impart leadership skills, and taught in neighborhood churches and shelters before finding a permanent space in Southeast Atlanta. Today, Moving in the Spirit is a nationally-recognized model for youth development.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Georgia

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Georgia

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]


Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Youth in southeast Atlanta disproportionately confront achievement gaps at school, poverty at home and crime in their neighborhoods. Living under tremendous stress, in hostile environments, they receive a message that their voices are not heard or valued. Unfortunately, young people in Atlanta’s low income, urban areas often face socio-economic barriers to after-school enrichment programs. Moving in the Spirit is guided by the belief that every child deserves the chance to grow up in a community that’s rich in cultural assets, with access to educational programs that nurture their creativity and support mental health. 30% of our families live at or below the US Poverty Threshold, while 60% live at twice the Poverty Threshold. Our program offers safety, structure, and community – rooted in relationships that help students discover the best in themselves and in one another.

Moving in the Spirit blends dance class and youth development to provide holistic services for children and teens in Atlanta’s urban communities. Our vision is to activate youth to successfully identify their own unique talents and voice. Through the fun, collaborative, and accessible model of a dance class, we prepare young people to become agents for positive change. Our mission is to educate, inspire and unite young people through the art of dance, equipping them with skills and positive self-identity to thrive as leaders.

Why dance? It's not rocket science, but it really is brain science: neuroscientists know that there's no better way to stimulate brain development, peer-to-peer connection, or positive self-identification than movement. And our innovative curriculum even challenges the norms of a standard dance class-- students are expected to "check in" about their day at school, share structured positive affirmations with their peers, and contribute original choreography. Challenging assignments on socially relevant topics and a tight-knit community of peers to hold them accountable provide students with resiliency to solve problems with creativity and compassion and a safe environment to test their limits.

Moving in the Spirit delivers our curriculum through a series of programs offered at a home theater space and outreach sites including schools, shelters and recreation centers. Student enrollment is open to any community member who wishes to participate, regardless of dance experience or ability to pay. Students are placed into age-appropriate classes that meet for 1 to 5 hours each week. Class activities include training in modern dance and creative movement; exploration of movement therapies; health education workshops; creation of original choreography as a tool for empowerment; and leadership training that challenges students through both education and service.

100% of Moving in the Spirit students graduate from high school and gain college admission, prepared to thrive in the workforce and beyond. But more importantly, they enter this next, often stressful, time in their lives with a grounded sense of who they are as artists, community members and leaders, AND with the confident ability to create networks of support around themselves.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Take Crystal. Diagnosed with a learning disorder, Crystal had difficulty keeping pace with her peers. Teachers were unsympathetic, told her she was stupid. At home her mom struggled as a single parent to protect her from the violence in their neighborhood. As a result, Crystal was prone to anger, failing in school and felt labelled by an identity she couldn’t escape. When Crystal joined Moving in the Spirit at age 12, our experts in arts and youth development used dance class to celebrate her unique talents. In the process of creating choreography, Crystal practiced problem-solving, learned to rely on a community and spoke proudly on topics that mattered to her— skills that helped her turn around her academics and earn a BA in business.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

This past school year, Moving in the Spirit reached 213 children through our holistic curriculum, linked directly with the Positive Youth Development Model. Data captured from pre- and post- tests proved that our students universally experienced gains in: confidence, empathy, feelings of worth, resilience, a positive outlook, time management. This translates into better communication at home, improved grades at school, motivation to set goals, compassion towards others, and successful college admission (by 100% of our teens). Over the next several years, Moving in the Spirit will be expanding our presence into new community venues in Atlanta to become a more visible local leader as well as a national destination for change-makers. We have identified partner sites in neighborhoods of tremendous need and have a scaleable plan to double our student capacity over five years.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Moving in the Spirit boasts a strong record of fiscal stability, having never operated with debt or deficit for our 29 years. Our organizational strength and sustained impact have been recognized by the President’s Committee for the Arts & Humanities and the GA Governor’s Award for Arts & Humanities. Our robust multi-stream fundraising plan includes state, county, city government sources, individual donors, corporations and private foundations.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Many worthy organizations address child mental health and community development by providing mentoring, training, and other human resources. The Girl-LEAD project or national organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters seize on the power of positive role models for inspiration. Our program draws on that important motivator, but our unique approach is in starting with dance. Having a fun common denominator that engages young people's attention as much as it engages brain pathways allows us expand youth development outcomes exponentially.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Moving in the Spirit celebrates the recognition that engagement tactics are crucial to advancing education and health outcomes. A continued movement towards inclusive, personalized and interdisciplinary teaching methods and healthcare programs means that children's needs are truly seen and met where they are. Integration of holistic healthcare and education is key, whether it's making sure students aren't hungry in the classroom or that health services from the doctor to the community mentor are easy and interesting to engage.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)


1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Momi

Hi Heather - Thanks so much for sharing your project with the Children's Wellbeing Initiative! From what I gather your project provides a space for at-risk youth to engage in dance, a constructive outlet for expression, communication, and individuality. I like how clearly you laid out your current impact and the fact that your program integrates original contributions by participants and teamwork. 

Some thoughts to keep in mind as you continue to share your work here and elsewhere: a.) Does this program cost money to participants? b.) You mention that 100% of your participants move on to graduate high school and gain admission to college. Do you think this can be a attributed to your program? If so, elaborate on why you believe this. c.) Does this program ever engage with the community to reshape the community's view of these children as talented and highly productive dancers? For example, performing local shows? 

Thanks again for sharing!