Kids flow across a polished wood floor in a light-bathed studio.

Arms and hands extend, pulling them through space. Two lines of young dancers converge to a slow drum beat, stretching sideways, dropping to the floor, rising, turning. Some of them count under their breath.

“They enter as artists, and dance is their clay, their paintbrush,” says Mila Parrish, the UNCG dance professor responsible for the free dance classes that will culminate in a recital, sans elaborate costumes,  for the dancers, ages 7-11. “This is all about developing a full understanding of the ways we look at dance from a place of creating dance.”

Parrish started the program, Dancers Connect, while on the faculty at the University of South Carolina, where it continues to thrive. As a new faculty member in UNCG’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, she wanted to launch a sister program in Greensboro.

Parrish enlisted graduate and undergraduate students to help, and recruited dance teachers and students through the Guilford County Schools. The first 10-week session kicked off in January, with 26 dancers enjoying two-hour classes every Saturday in the Health and Human Sciences building on campus.

Parrish is seeking funds to continue and grow Dancers Connect, hoping to expand the program to include 6- and 12-year-olds. And she wants to keep the program free.

“Dance is expensive,” she says. “Training a dancer is like training a future baseball player. It may cost a competitive dancer $5,000 a year or more for training. This may be the only chance some of these children have to work with masterful teachers.”

Dancers Connect offers students an experience above what they get at most dance studios, beyond the standard ballet, tap and jazz, Parrish says. These kids aren’t just learning steps and memorizing routines — they are creating their dances.

The students use paintings, like Van Gogh’s  ”Starry Night,”  to inspire their dances. They write movement poems, acted out in dance by themselves and other students.

“The teachers are guiding them through creative investigation,” Parrish says. “A lot of places might have a 50-minute lesson once a week. There’s not a lot of time for creative work, for this kind of detailed, creative self-investigation.”

Tynea Williams, a fifth-grader at Colfax Elementary, agrees. “You can express your feelings, instead of your emotions melting down,” she says during a class break. “It’s more fun.”

Brandon Sour, a fifth-grader at Morehead Elementary, is the lone boy in the group. “I like the texture of how you dance the movements,” he says. “The arm movements help me with other sports, really help me get the feeling of my arm. I want to play football in the fall.”

Teresa Lowell and Jennifer Braswell, dance instructors employed by the county schools, lead the classes, assisted by some of Parrish’s students. The college students mingle with the kids during the lessons.

Bria Powell, a sophomore earning a BFA with teaching licensure, volunteers with Dancers Connect. Coming from a performing arts high school, Powell  knows first-hand the value of dance education.

“With me, dance was an outlet, an emotional thing,” she says. “It pushes you to be the best you can be, not only as a dancer but as a student. It helped me with finding myself, being determined, being confident.”

Delanie Merchant, an exchange student visiting from Australia, is studying education back home. She wants to integrate the creative arts into her teaching.

“I’ve been trying to find a way to link dance and education together,” Merchant says. “I’ve seen a lot of these kids really improve. They are enjoying being able to create movements themselves and move together as a team. It’s a way of using dance to explore different things, and that’s what I want to incorporate in the classroom.”

Like Merchant, sophomore Anthony Taylor plans to teach children. Dancers Connect, he says, is a great way for him to get valuable experience.

“At first most of the kids were definitely more reserved,” he says. “As they progressed you began to see that little spark of joy bubbling up, and you see them really wanting to be here. That keeps us going.”

Emmanuel Malette, a freshman, also volunteers.

“I’ve always wanted to inspire kids through dance,” he says. “They may never get this opportunity again in life, so I want to do all I can while they are here, now. They’ve become more creative, more expressive. They’ve grown a lot.”

Emily Ellis-Liang, the graduate student who helps Parrish oversee Dancers Connect, wants to start her own dance studio. She says Dancers Connect and programs like it are even more essential as funding cuts continue to chip away at the arts in public schools.

“Some of the parents tell us this has changed their children, that it’s really helping them develop who they are as people,” Ellis-Liang says. “It’s a chance for them to show the world who they are. You can see their personalities come out in their movements. It’s theirs. It’s something they are creating, they’re not just doing something someone is telling them to do.”

Mira Eby’s mom, Carmen, photographs her daughter from the sidelines. Carmen and Mira’s dad, Chad, are musicians. A friend enlisted Mira, a second-grader at General Greene Elementary, in Dancers Connect.

“It really encourages the creative process, and combines all the creative arts,” Carmen Eby says. “I love the freedom of it.”

For more information or to donate to Dancers Connect, contact Mila Parrish at mlparri4@uncg.edu or Jeff Aguiar at jbaguiar@uncg.edu.

Story by Michelle Hines, University Relations

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations