INDIANAPOLIS — Breaking down barriers and providing opportunities to shine — that's what one local organization in the Indianapolis area strives to do every day for children in the community.
Kids Dance Outreach is a nonprofit organization that provides high-quality arts and dance education to children with live music no matter their background, no matter their abilities, and no matter their ability to pay.
"It's amazing to see when children are just given the opportunity with proper guidance and a safe environment to participate in something that's meaningful and fun and joyful. It's amazing what they can achieve," said Michael Johnson, founding artistic director for KDO.
Johnson and the KDO community are celebrating 10 years of serving children across central Indiana this year, and the program continues to grow with waitlists for them to come into schools.
"Regardless of their background. regardless of their economic status. regardless of their ability ... we want this to be an inclusive and accessible program for all children," said Johnson.
So far, more than 17,000 kids in Indianapolis have taken part in the KDO program in some way.
KDO provides a variety of programming opportunities, including bringing its teaching methods to school-age children in Indianapolis public and charter schools. These schools are 70% minorities, with more than 80% on the free/reduced meal program, 50% of boys and 50% girls, according to KDO's website.
The KDO Adaptive Dance Programs, like Dancers with Disabilities, reach children with developmental disabilities and highlight all of their abilities to work as a team and have fun.
Michael Kaufmann's son Atlas has been a part of KDO for several years.
"He loves the teachers. He loves to dance. He dances at home now and does his own routines," said Kaufmann. "Kids build a camaraderie where they support each other and encourage each other."
Kaufmann says a parent to a child with Down Syndrome, it can be difficult to find opportunities to take part in activities where your child can shine. But they found a home for Atlas and a community through KDO.
"It's hard to find things uniquely tailored where regardless of ability and regardless of experience, kids are welcome and are getting a chance to do that," said Kaufmann. "He was in the big show that they did ... where there (were) hundreds of people there to see him dance and perform — and he did a great job."
Johnson says KDO is not about making professional dancers.
"It's really about showing children that if you try your best day after day, week, after week, month after month, and you help your teammates, help your classmates and let's applaud and support each other's successes, then we're all going to be okay," said Johnson.
"You know, we're going to be doing the right thing, making the right decisions. And, yeah, we just want to bring people together and show them that hard work and celebrating each other pays off. And then our community is going to be a much better place for that," he added.
A big part of showcasing the value of KDO to the community lies in the hands of their Community Engagement Coordinator, Dana Vanderburgh, who says she grew up with a dancing background. But KDO works to bring the joy of dance to all children.
"We're a big community of folks that believe dance can make a difference," said Vanderburgh. "KDO is not just a style of dance, it is a method, it is a pedagogy. It is specifically designed to make sure that every child in the space — no matter who they are, where they come from their physical abilities, any of that — that they will be able to get that joy of dance."
Vanderburg says a big part of their program is the live music element. It not only helps the artistic instructors continuously engage the students without having to walk over and mess with starting and stopping music, but the pianist works right along with the instructor and the students.
"Our musicians are matching what is happening in the classroom. They are communicating with our teaching artists. If we're doing big movement, they make the music really loud. If we're doing soft movement, they quiet it down, They kind of hold little spaces with kind of interludes in between so that the music doesn't stop," said Vanderburgh.
"The music is part of what we're doing, and that a lot of times grabs kids' attention. And that holds their attention. And so we're just incredibly lucky that we are able to provide this. And then also, it's to the credit of our musicians and their incredible talent, that they're able to participate alongside the teaching," Vanderburgh added.
KDO works to engage students who may struggle in a typical classroom setting or at home. Johnson says when the children come to their classes, they have a clean slate.
"Sometimes what we see is a child that was really struggling at school or really struggling in academics or really struggling with behavior. Oftentimes, when they come to our program. We don't know their backstory, we don't know that they've maybe been labeled by some of their classmates as the one that's not good at math or the one that gets in trouble a lot.
"It's a clean slate when the children come to us. And oftentimes those children that have had really struggled being successful anywhere else, sometimes that one student can be successful in our program, and they become a leader for their class in our program. And then when their classmates and teachers are finally standing up and applauding and cheering for something that they did well, that feeling of success and accomplishment should translate back to their academic success, back to their choices when it comes to behavior," Johnson said.
Johnson says there is a waitlist for their programming and they always want to provide it for free to children and families, which is why they need your support.
To learn more about how to support KDO and their efforts in the Indianapolis community, you can check out their website KidsDanceOutreach.org.