BY NICHOLAS PUGLIESE
PATERSON — “We can’t change the world with a song, but as we change the world, watch the world sing along.”
With those rapped words, 19-year-old Jaisha Wright seemed to capture the essence of the first-ever Youth Arts Day, an event that brought together teenagers from Paterson, Trenton and Harlem to celebrate their commitment to music, dance and social change.
Hosted by Passaic County Community College and funded through the Passaic County Cultural and Heritage Council, the Youth Arts Day showcased a range of talented young artists — hip-hop and jazz performers, Dominican palo dancers, singers and poets — who have been developed through a number of in-school and after-school programs.
Nicholas Rodriguez, the organizer of Saturday’s event and the artistic director for two of the performance groups — the Trenton Education Dance Institute (TEDI) and the Paterson-based Inner City Ensemble — said that dance gives at-risk teenagers a voice and allows them to take control of their environment.
“You don’t have to wait until you’re an adult to show that collaboration, and the arts are a very powerful mechanism for bringing about community and change,” he said.
Two days a week as part of the TEDI program, now in its 26th year, Rodriguez visits schools in Trenton to deliver lessons in American-fusion dance. For his fifth-grade beginners’ class, Rodriguez works closely with teachers to incorporate academic concepts into his dance routines. For example, he’ll explain arm positions using terminology from geometry class and will ask his students to compare and contrast various styles and movements.
“They’re learning all this information, but how are they going to use it?” he said.
If the fifth-graders show promise and commitment, they graduate into a series of upper-level classes continuing through 10th grade that stress the importance of discipline, communication and developing the whole person, Rodriguez said.
Seraphine Rolon, a 10th-grader and one of Rodriguez’s most talented students, has taken those lessons to heart.
“You may have troubles in school,” she said,” but when you come to TEDI, it’s like, ‘OK, I know I can do this. I’m going to get through school. And getting through school, I know I can come to this.’Ÿ”
Seraphine and her classmates also got to watch a 25-minute performance by the Impact Repertory Theatre of Harlem, a group whose members range in age from 10 to 21 that is best known for its song “Raise It Up” that earned it an Academy Award nomination in 2008. Jaisha Wright is a member.
With honest and hard-hitting lyrics and poetry, the performers spoke to issues facing many teenagers in the auditorium.
“I started life out with a smile, but now I just don’t know,” 17-year-old Bharata Selassie reflected from the stage. “Midnight basketball games in the park? How about a computer near my bed, and a mentor with heart?”
As the teenagers mingled after the performance ended, Rodriguez’s goal of using the arts to create a community seemed to be gaining traction. One student was overheard asking how she could start rehearsing with another group.
Rodriguez hopes to expand the Youth Arts Day in future years into a larger event featuring multiple generations and more forms of media. One possibility is to use the physical setting of Paterson and the city’s existing art exhibits as performance spaces.
In the meantime, he’s happy that his students from various cities got the chance to perform together.
“I feel like I brought together a few of my best friends,” Rodriguez said.