Ballet and Books

Dance and literacy meet in this youth empowerment program seeking to improve the well-being of children through community collaborations.

Photo of Talia Bailes
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Written by

Additional categories (optional)

  • Education

Website or social media url(s) (optional):

Date You Started Your Project Started

August 1, 2017

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan for the future)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Inadequate literacy is a risk factor in ADHD, obesity, depression, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and poverty. This project targets children growing up in poverty as children raised in low-income families hear 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers before kindergarten. We target children in pre-k through third grade because if students are behind in academics by third grade they are likely to stay behind.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

We propose Ballet and Books, a community based organization dedicated to strengthening the confidence and community of young children through dance while building literacy skills and excitement for reading. We pride ourselves on serving a diverse community of families and representing diverse backgrounds ourselves. This program bridges literacy mentorship from college and high school students with dance in a creative class that combines movement with reading. This program has run successfully in Ithaca for the past 2 years and New Jersey and Florida are hoping to start chapters in the coming year. I will work with my team to create chapters in four additional cities while evaluating the programmatic activities through quantitative and qualitative methods in a formative program evaluation. We have partnered with national and local non-profits, for-profits, dance programs, universities and libraries to improve literacy rates and physical activity levels among young children through in dance and literacy. The team expects to see 200 unique children ages 3-9 receiving mentorship from 100 college students each session as children’s self-reported well-being levels increase.

3. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

I grew up dancing at a classical ballet studio. In high school, I founded a ballet program for students in Ohio's underserved neighborhoods. For a year after high school, before entering Cornell University, I taught in a primary school while living with a family in Tena, Ecuador. I joined a community dance group. My time in Tena kindled my curiosity on how children in an indigenous Amazonian town develop as dancers and students. I returned to the USA eager to learn about children’s development. I studied emergent literacy in the lab of a pediatrician. I witnessed social determinants of health—book exposure, racism, and poverty—influencing children’s health. This experience left me with questions; how could I be an agent of change and how could I combine healthy development of children’s minds with dance? As an undergraduate student, these questions fueled my creation of Ballet and Books.

4. Selfie Elevator Pitch: Include 1-minute video that answers the following “I am stepping up to make change because...”

5. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of what happens when a person or group gets involved with your project.

A typical class in Ithaca consists of dance instruction led by dancers from Cornell University and Ithaca College. The dance class for younger children integrates literacy and reading activities. The older children have dance class followed by 1:1 mentorship from high school and college students who lead programming that bridges dance and literacy. Each session culminates with a final show–in the spring at Cornell University alongside a dance troupe and in the fall at the local library. We have a new program in Union City, NJ. Parents, children, and mentors leave all programs feeling inspired and connected to the community with parents reporting that their children have gained self-confidence and an interest in reading. We value books with diverse characters and stories represented to match the diversity of our executive team, mentors, and families illustrating the beauty of difference.

6. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

The combination of dance with literacy in itself is unique. Bridging literacy with movement is innovative. Further, this program illustrates community engagement in all aspects of the project, important to such programs and different from other existing ones. The development of the flagship chapter took place alongside Southside Community Center, a historically African American community center in Ithaca. Further growth has taken place alongside partners such as local dance stores, libraries, Universities, literacy non-profits, and national organizations supporting dance and literacy.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

In Ithaca we serve 32 unique students each session. Over the past two years, including our newest NJ chapter, we have served over 90 unique students. We plan to expand to reach 200 unique students in the next year. We have conducted a formative program evaluation in Spring 2019. Initial findings from qualitative and quantitative data suggest that children show reading improvement as well as gain self-confidence and an ability to present in front of others. Children report program satisfaction and parents report extreme program satisfaction stating things like "She loves going and looks forward to reading with her mentor. I love that she has positive female role models to look up" and "I really appreciate how the program provides an exposure to dance in an environment of acceptance and kindness." We plan to continue evaluation with Ripple Effects Mapping techniques throughout expansion.

8. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

The goal of this Commitment to Action is to expand current Ballet and Books programming that has been successfully running in Ithaca, NY for 2 years and to analyze it through qualitative and quantitative data collection. We will communicate and collaborate with four unique cities to implement programming for expansion while working collaboratively with existing organizations locally, nationally, and internationally. Our partners can be seen listed on our website under “Our People.” We will seek more collaborations with libraries, universities, and non-profits as well as support from National Ballet Companies and programs. I, Talia, hope to work with partners in Colombia to learn further skills for expansion (applying to Fulbright).

9. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you?

  • Board Development

10. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Sales
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations less than $100
  • Donations between $100-$1k
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Other

Evaluation results

13 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 92.3%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 7.7%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. - 0%

2. Changemaker Quality

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 92.3%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 7.7%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

3. Creativity

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 84.6%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 7.7%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 7.7%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

No Answer - 0%

4. Commitment

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 100%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 0%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Connection

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 92.3%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 7.7%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Tara Eng

This is such a beautiful way to connect kids with their communities and the arts!!! I love how Ballet & Books creates an inclusive and accessible space for kids of all backgrounds.

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