Growing up today is hard in New Orleans.
Children are coming up in broken homes, sometimes with neither of their parents present or alive. Fourteen-year-olds are forced to cope with losing their friends to violence.
The negatives feel so big. The pit feels too deep. The problems seem too large to fix. Many feel bound for the same outcomes they see around them. And parents, neighbors, and city leaders are all asking the same questions as the kids themselves:
“What can we even do?”
While politicians talk, neighbors gawk, and mothers worry, one 9th ward native has decided to answer that question herself. In doing so, she has been transforming the lives of young women and girls across the Desire Neighborhood.
Using The Past to Create A Better Future
April Farmer grew up in the 9th ward, navigating the difficulties of living her life in and out of foster care and the challenges mixed with the joys of choosing to be a teen mother. For her, dance had always been a refuge and inspiration.
“When you’re in and out of foster care, sometimes you’ve got money for things, sometimes you don’t, sometimes people are nice to you, sometimes they aren’t, so I used cheerleading and dance…I would put on music and dance myself away. Through dance, I could be in another place, in another world. I could release all the negativity in my life through dance.”Today, she is sharing the gift of dance to provide that refuge and inspiration to others, by offering dance and cheerleading classes in partnership with Thrive 9th Ward. But for her, it’s about far more than just dance itself.
In her own words, “It’s about the children, what they need, what they wanted, helping them fulfill their goals and dreams.”
For many of the kids growing up in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, high school dance and cheerleading make up a major part of those dreams and goals, and are creating pathways to reaching even greater dreams and goals. April explains, “one of the things that are really important to our children is being on their high school dance team, and having, being able to have the opportunity to able and eligible to try out for their HBCU dance team.”
Beyond helping kids pursue their future goals, the dance and cheerleading classes that April runs are helping to transform their lives in the present. Teenage years are complicated and difficult as is, and many of the girls in April’s classes are dealing with far more than what you or I can imagine. For them, dance serves as a refuge, just as it did for April when she was their age.
The Healing, Wholeness, and Freedom Dance Provides
“It makes such a big difference…just to give these kids an outlet to channel their anger, channel their frustrations. I tell them all the time, especially in competition dance, ‘whatever you’re going through, put it out there on the floor…use dance as a positive way to release that anger, to release that stress, to release that sadness’.” April shares, the passion in her voice evident. “Dance is an art that can be many things, it can be happy, it can be positive, it can be emotional, physical, stressful, angry…it’s a lot of expression that comes out through dance.”
In April’s experience, she has seen dance help young folks channel these difficult emotions in ways that break free from the negative models they see everyday: violence, aggression, isolation, self-loathing, hopelessness. Through dance they’re able to process what they’re feeling in an edifying way that builds self-agency, confidence, and community while making meaning out of the difficult emotions they feel.
Of course, dance classes and it’s benefits aren’t new to New Orleans…but April’s classes are profoundly different from other programs around the city. To understand what makes them different, you have to go back to the days when April first began coaching.
Breaking Down Barriers
“When my son was about four or five years old, he had an interest in dance and in color guard. That’s when I started coaching and mentoring, when my son, he had decided he wanted to be in to follow my footsteps. In schools, for dance and things, there are fees that have to be paid. I found out that as my kids were trying out for things at school, a lot of times those budgets are $1000 plus, and a lot of times parents can’t afford that…or like in these private institutions, dance can be $75-$100 a week….”
April saw these price tags as barriers holding back children from a life changing opportunity, and found herself asking the questions: “What about the kids who are in foster care? What about the kids whose parents are deceased or incarcerated and they can’t afford that?”That’s why April’s classes are different, she’s made sure they are as close to free as possible.
After searching all over the city for affordable space to host her classes in, she came across Oscar Brown and Dwana Caliste at Thrive 9th Ward.
“Thanks to Mr Oscar and Thrive 9th Ward, I’ve been able to lower my fees and my uniform rates over half. So kids with little income, or are in the foster system or don’t have parents or can’t afford to pay, they’re allowed to come.”
April was clear, it’s never been about the money for her. To her, the payoff looks different. “If I can use what I have, or what I learned, or have been through…if I can reach just one, then my living is not in vain….I keep this love and this dedication because this is what I would want somebody to do for me, this is what the children need, this is what the community needs.”
While a lot of times, “free” means lower quality, the dedication that April invests is making sure her girls are getting the best. “We win championships, we do parades, we do Gentillyfest, Christmas parades…we out there just doing great things.”
April doesn’t coach alone. If you drop by any of her classes, you’ll see it runs in the family, as April’s daughter helps coach too. “She’s a junior at McMain, she’s on the dance team at McMain…She mentors the other girls as well…because she’s 17 and in high school a lot of the girls listen to her more than they even listen to me”.
Having a dance “mother” like April and a mentor that they can relate to like her daughter creates another level of meaning for the girls in April’s classes.
“For them, its about having a group of girls that’s just positive. We talk about everything, boys, sex, drugs, money, anything…so for them its about having a group of girls that’s positive…focused on dance and focused on grades. Right now they’re focused on ACTs and getting into college.”
This sort of close, positive community has been especially important in helping the team through some of the most difficult times that they’ve been faced with.
“With my high school girls…we’ve buried about 3 of their friends that they go to school with. It’s been a hard year for them….we express it out in dance…the girls have a liturgical dance they’re going to do…that they’ve dedicated to the last good friend that they lost.”
Creating A New Narrative for Her Neighborhood
It’s easy to look at the negative. It’s easy to feel paralyzed by the difficulties facing the city’s youth.
For April though, she’s turning the negative connotations of the 9th ward upside down, and shaking off the paralysis with movement. She’s helping bring healing, hope, and a new future to the 9th Ward.
“If there’s anything the world needs to know, it’s this: good things can come out of the 9th Ward.”
If you or someone you know is interested in supporting April’s work, email Oscar Brown (Oscar@ThriveNOLA.org).
And if you know someone who is interested in joining April’s classes, she has this to say “Our doors are always open, our hearts are always open…we’re always taking new kids in the program.”
You can reach her directly at 504.874.8671