How Outkasts Dance Their Way to Success
Depressing news stories surround us, and it’s particularly sad when we hear how the young people in the United States no longer have an opportunity to take creative arts classes and programs because they’ve been cut to near non-existence in our public schools. The Los Angeles public schools have been stricken with cuts in creative arts programs like drama, art, music, and dance. A feel-good story would be great right about now, and I have one… It’s about a brilliant dance school in Los Angeles, The Outkast Academy (a non-profit org) that provides a phenomenal (no fee) dance program for inner-city youth. The most remarkable feature of the program is beyond dance. It’s with preparing the students for a successful future of adulthood; the opposite of becoming an outcast in life.
Jennifer Newton is the founder and CEO of The Outkast Academy, which she began at Los Angeles High School in 2013. Her path to running this innovative dance program at LA High began when she was a student there after her family settled in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles when she was high school age. There is a back story to Jennifer Newton’s life that reveals why the “Speak Love” character enrichment part of the Outkast dance program is an essential and mandatory part of the program.
Jennifer Lee was born the daughter of Korean immigrant parents in San Diego California, but her childhood was shattered at the age of five when her father abandoned the family without a word and financial support. The Lee family lived an affluent lifestyle in San Diego until her father left. Her mother, Luby, did not speak English and was a stay-at-home mom with three children – Jennifer, her brother, and her sister. Her mom took classes to learn English and found work where she could to support her children. As Luby became more fluent in English, she was able to find better-paying jobs and go back to school to receive a cosmetology license and start her own business in Los Angeles. During this time of rebuilding, the family often moved, sometimes many times in a year to affordable housing and where the work was located. There were times the family had to split up so her mother could work many jobs, so Jennifer and her siblings lived with her grandmother who also moved often to keep the family as close to their mother as possible. After Luby was able to get a divorce from Jennifer’s father she re-married and it seemed that stability was starting to take hold for the family. The stability quickly shattered when her stepfather turned out to be a cruel man who physically abused Jennifer when her mom was at work, and her siblings weren’t around to witness. Jennifer, still very young at eleven years old, was emotionally and physically damaged but thankfully was able to reveal the abuse to her mother through her cousin and aunt. Criminal charges and a divorce ended the nightmare to the relief of Jennifer and her mother and siblings. The Lee family struggled again to rise up from another painful and overwhelming situation, and when they settled in Mid-City Los Angeles to live with her grandmother, Jennifer finally started to feel stability in her young life.
Jennifer, now 15 years old, decided to enroll in the dance program offered at LA High, taught by Crystal Londres who became a mentor to her. Jennifer was inspired to develop her talent and use the discipline and creative outlet of dancing to overcome emotional blocks and feel the freedom and empowerment that the physical expression of dance can reveal. Jennifer has always found joy and peace with music, and singing is another talent that allows her free expression.
After Jennifer graduated from LA High in 2007, she pursued dance training and education at the acclaimed International Dance Academy (IDA) in Hollywood. She also attended Westwood College Los Angeles for business. At the same time, her talents as a singer landed her a recording contract with Universal Music. The future was looking promising for Jennifer to develop a successful career in entertainment. However, after recording several songs for Universal, none of her material was ever released. This was due to Jennifer resisting an image and career direction the producers at Universal was routing her towards in music videos. The producers wanted her to take on a highly sexualized, provocative image, which Jennifer did not want. Her moral standards and values were opposed to the style that Universal demanded, so she let the recording contract expire. Crystal Londres reached out to her and offered her a teaching position in dance at Los Angeles High School. Crystal was planning to retire from teaching at LA High. Though Jennifer was reluctant to accept the position Crystal convinced her that she had the heart and skills to lead the dance program.
In 2013 Jennifer Lee became the dance instructor at Los Angeles High School and from what she saw from her dance students needing counseling and guidance through their life challenges, she started The Outkast Academy with a unique vision of her dance program becoming a comprehensive instructional program that supports leadership skills and character development. Her personal experience of a tumultuous childhood gave her the empathy and compassion to want to help children develop skills to rise and succeed in life. From this seed of a model progressive dance and personal development program at Los Angeles High School grew the overwhelming success of The Outkast Academy program into other schools; Sandra Cisneros Learning Academy, `Animo Venice Charter High School, Animo Ralphe Bunche Charter High, Garfield High School, Dymally High School, and Maywood Academy High School.
The program provides a complete dance training curriculum that includes physical training and instruction in various styles of dance including, hip-hop, krump, ballet, jazz, breakdancing, contemporary and more. The cultural history behind the many styles of dance is also taught. The students who sign-up for the program do not need to have prior dance training to be accepted but must have enthusiasm for dance and a commitment to the whole program. Dance is taught in a non-judgment atmosphere, which allows any level of student to train and learn the techniques of various dance forms.
All dance students are required to attend the character enrichment, and leadership program called “Speak Love.” The hour-long “Speak Love” sessions are scheduled three days a week, and all dance instructors at The Outkast Academy are trained in this type of leadership coaching and development. In these sessions, the dance students are led with compassion and encouraged to break down the walls and discuss openly without fear of judgment their concerns and anxieties with their instructors and peers constructively. These group sessions help them to deal with and overcome their challenges as a teen. Some of the topics covered in the training are communication skills, conflict resolution, listening skills, trust, responsibility, and teamwork. Many of the students come from a dysfunctional and abusive family life; many are from poverty level income families. The mindset that these students bring with them is often a defeated and destructive one. The goal of “Speak Love” is to nurture a positive mindset and develop skills to mature into productive, successful adults and empower them with the knowledge they control the destiny of their lives. The “Speak Love” program has supported all of the Outkast students, particularly at LA High, to excel academically, graduate and many go on to college. This rate is in sharp contrast to the number of failing students, not part of the Outkast program, who do not graduate and drop out of school. This clearly indicates there is a great need at public schools in the “at risk” districts to implement a program like “Speak Love” character enrichment training for all students.
Of course, the dance training the students receive is also top notch, and I was privileged to see for myself how talented and outstanding these students were when they performed earlier this year at The Outkast Academy’s annual spring production for 2017, “Empower.” I was impressed, no… blown away by the dance productions! It is hard to believe that most of these students had never taken a dance class before enrolling in Outkast.
The show which included dancers from three schools – Sandra Cisneros School,`Animo Venice Charter High School, and Los Angeles High School – consisted of 18 different dance numbers most choreographed by the Outkast dance instructors and other professional choreographers, but the dance students choreographed a few. Each dance was preceded by an intro from Jennifer Newton (Jennifer Lee became Newton earlier this year when she wed Storm Newton, a fitness professional, and trainer) that gave background on the theme or story behind each dance performance. The titles of each number also tell of the “empowering” impact that the creative physical expression dance delivers to each dancer and in turn to the audience. Some of the titles like Never Give Up, Undefeated, Seeking Serenity, One Day We’ll Overcome, tells it all, and the dancing was exciting and breathtaking in its precision and expression. Some numbers were like musical theater as it told the story with central and background characters/dancers. There was even one number that was a tribute to “Hamilton” that was awe-inspiring.
The Outkast Academy is an outstanding opportunity for the lucky students who choose to enter the program. Dance becomes more than a creative art form for expression. As Jennifer explained to me, “It’s about changing the student’s current negative psychology, destructive beliefs and behavior into a positive, life-affirming and self-motivated mentality with “Speak Love” training. In dance, the students learn to channel their emotions in a healthy and creative way. The sadness, anger, and depression that a person might be going through can be expressed through dance, and thus they learn a way to release emotions in a way that turns the negative into joy, and with a sense of accomplishment, dance can truly help build the student’s self-esteem.”
Focusing on positivity rather than negativity is the healing balm we need today in a climate of chaos. The Outkast Academy is keeping the performing arts alive and well with a powerful dance and transforming leadership program and is expanding. Jennifer Newton, along with her friend and business partner, Malie Chang (Executive Director), is leading The Outkast Academy forward and growing the program to include more students and more schools. This exciting, life-affirming success story continues for the future students of Los Angeles public schools and our benefit. The Outkast Academy is funded through public school funds, grants, and the generous donations from ARC (After School Enrichment), Beyond the Bell and others.
You can learn more about The Outkast Academy at their website, https://www.theoutkastacademy.org/
Their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/theoutkastacademy/
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