03/07/2012 09:37 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

D.C.'s CityDance Dream Connects Kids To Community Through Performances

WASHINGTON -- "No, I don't get nervous," said 10-year-old Nikko Garner, "because I love to dance."

In the player's tunnel at the Verizon Center, Garner and other students from seven District of Columbia elementary schools waited to perform at the NBA Wizards' halftime show on Saturday as part of CityDance Dream. As excited students squirmed around backstage, it was not hard to understand why this is one of the capstones of their dance careers with the program.

Since 1996, CityDance Dream has taught more than 100,000 children and youth in the D.C. metropolitan area through its free community programming. The Dream project is an intensive 32-week, four-hour-a-week, after-school program that combines dance and service-learning to teach students how to work as part of a team.

The camaraderie of a dance team doesn't always come easily though, even with younger students. CityDance brings students together from across the city, which can cause some conflict.

"Naturally when you bring a bunch of kids together, they don't know each other, they share some of the same teachers, so you bring them together and they're all looking at each other, and they're in their different schools," said community programs director Kelli Quinn. "They do feel threatened. And we work through that a lot."

Another element of the program pushes students to identify a community service project that they would like to complete. But It always comes back to dance. After the students are finished, they choreograph their own dance -- to be performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center -- that reflects what they learned.

"Last year's show was really cool and really interesting," said instructor Juli Calderon. "They had cleaned up [a neighborhood] of all the trash ... and they brought [the trash] on stage, they ended up starting with old crumpled up newspapers, and they were dancing through on stage to show how they had cleaned it up."

Ultimately, it's about performing multiple times throughout the school year -- at school, at their showcase, and at Georgetown Hoyas and Wizards games. The group performs throughout the academic year, because, "basically all they want to do is dance, they want to perform as much as possible," Calderon said.

The students can confirm that. Kaylah McNeil said she'll be dancing, "Til I die. There was a 90-year-old lady and she was a dancer."

Middle-school mentor Nicah Mims joked, "I've been dancing since I came out of my mom."



CityDance Dream's 2011 Wizards Half-Time Show

CityDance DREAM program performs at Wizards' Halftime from Ludovic Jolivet on Vimeo.