Betsy Ross Students Dance For Their Lives

Lucy Gellman | June 9th, 2023

Betsy Ross Students Dance For Their Lives

Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School  |  Culture & Community  |  Dance  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Public Schools  |  Arts & Anti-racism

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A still from "Survivor," choreographed by Hannah Healey and danced by her eighth grade class. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

On stage, a phalanx of bodies hardly moved as the low, humming whisper of a voice made its way through the room. Bathed in green light, students’ limbs seemed intertwined: arms in arms, legs layered on legs, hands somewhere in the mix. Only when the lights came up could a viewer see the thick handprints climbing up each body, the ripped t-shirts, the oil slick of face paint smudged beneath the eyes. 

The beat dropped, and students began to move as if their limbs were on fire. When they locked eyes with the audience, there was an entire story of three years etched in their faces. 

A breathtaking show of survival and social justice came to Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School (BRAMS) last Friday night, as fifth through eighth grade dancers took the stage for an end-of-year showcase that packed the house and addressed book bans, climate change, mental health and suicidality, and anti-LGBTQ+ bullying before the end of the show. Over 200 parents, friends, and fellow educators attended. 

Part recital, part rock concert, and all heart, the performance doubled as a testament to how much school has changed in the last three years—and how students and their teachers have lived to tell the tale through the arts. 

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Top: Students in "Would Anyone Care?" danced by Nikki Claxton's eighth graders. Bottom: Students in "Lift Me Up" by Hannah Healey's eighth graders. 

“This class has just gone through a lot,” said Hannah Healey, who teaches in the school’s dance department alongside Nikki Claxton, pointing to the eighth graders in particular. “They’ve had a lot of interruptions in their education.” Through dance, she added, “They’re saying, like, ‘I can survive this. I can do this no matter what.’” 

From the moment students made their way onstage Friday, they moved with a sense of precision, probing the fine line between sheer power, protest, and grace. In the wings, eighth grade powerhouse Dakarai Langley waited for his moment in the spotlight, ready to take the stage one last time before heading to high school. Beneath the lights, Healey’s sixth and seventh graders stunned an audience to silence with Sleeping At Last’s “Snow.” 

It felt like an offering, easing the audience in before students exploded into movement. On stage, Healey’s young people carefully moved through the space, arms as legs fluttering through the air. They lined up, a sea of white lycra and tulle, and extended their limbs into a temporary freeze-frame, legs lifting as whole torsos rose toward the ceiling. When they lowered themselves back to the ground, it felt as if a spell had been broken.  

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Bianca Miranda, Mia Mathewson and Lanaya Gore. All are seventh graders studying with Claxton. They later danced i "Read All About It" and "Working Day and Night."

It was an opening to “Read All About It,” the first of two numbers addressing recent book bans and attacks on Black literature across the country. As Claxton’s sixth and seventh grade students took the stage in layered, purple costumes, they began on the ground, chests pulled to their knees as a piano rang out over the auditorium. 

Even before musician Emeli Sandé’s voice came in, several rose from the ground, their eyes wide as their hands covered their mouths. As they moved across the stage, those hands told whole stories, held out as if they were handing out books or newsprint, then retracted just as suddenly, and turned into muzzles. Even without a projection with which the piece was originally performed, students pulled an audience into recent history, unafraid to make a statement. After all, they seemed to say, an attack on any young minds is an attack on all young minds. 

The dance, first performed during Black History Month, has been a group effort. This year, students in both Claxton and Healey’s classes did research on literature by Black authors that has been banned across the country, from Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man. During a performance of Rhianna’s “Lift Me Up” just two numbers later in the program, Healey’s eighth grade students appeared with banned book covers, the bright text designed by their peers. 

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Top: Students in "Lift Me Up." Bottom: Claxton's eighth grade students in "Perspective Vs. Reality."

As they moved slowly, deliberately through a sea of red light, their t-shirts and jeans brought the message home: this could happen to young people anywhere, in any classroom, with little notice. When the class ended in a line, their right fists raised in the air as their left hands held out the covers, the act of reading felt like a sacred and endangered gift. 

Before the performance Friday, Claxton’s seventh graders Lanaya Gore and Nyla Thompson said that the project opened their eyes to how the very existence of Black people and Black books makes some people feel threatened. Before learning the dance, they researched Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give respectively. 

When she started the project, “I felt sad and disappointed. Why would Black books be banned?” Nyla said. Now, it gives her the fire she needs to perform the piece onstage. “Ms. Nikki, she tells us to use a lot of emotion—and it’s like, it’s a sad story because it’s about banning books.”

“We’re telling stories when we dance,” Lanaya said as she warmed up alongside classmates Mia Mathewson and Bianca Miranda. “Just expressing a story that everyone can understand.”

“It’s important for them to discuss this,” Claxton said as students began to file down to the auditorium. “You want young people to be able to think for themselves, but then you shut them down? Let them learn!”    

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Dakarai Langley in "Would Anyone Care." In an interview before the performance, he described Claxton as a second mom.

Back on stage, the floodgates were ready to come down. When Claxton’s eighth grade class came to the stage with “Would Anyone Care?,” first performed during this year’s Winterfest celebration, they danced their way through suicide prevention, reminding both each other and members of the audience that none of them has to go through it alone. 

It felt like a pendant to “Nothing’s Wrong with You,” the only solo performed during the entire showcase. Taking the stage to Wrabel’s “The Village,” Langley remained still for only a fraction of a moment, his back to the audience, then snapped into constant motion. His arms extended one by one, fingers stretched until he was at his full wingspan. He sprang up on one arm, a fringed top swaying with him. 

Then, as he has done so many times on BRAMS’ stage, he went airborne. 

When he dances, Langley moves with a grace and fury that makes it seem as if his bones are bendable, and a soft-eyed, wonderstruck look that slides the door of a person’s whole heart wide open. To watch him is to remember what it is like to physically feel pain for another person, so strongly you would put your body between them and the rest of the world.  

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Top: Students in "Rhythm of the Heat." Bottom: Students in Healey's "Arctic," which takes on climate change. 

In the front row, two students burst into tears, shoulders and chests shuddering as they watched soundlessly. Elsewhere, cheers and applause erupted across the gym-turned-auditorium. On stage, Langley just kept moving. 

For Langley, an eighth grader at the school, the work both takes a powerful stand against bullying and is an affecting goodbye to Claxton, who he described as “like a second mom” in an interview before the show. For young Black dancers, he said, the impact of having a Black dance teacher is immeasurable. 

When he dances, “it feels like it’s only me up there,” he said. “It makes me let out my anger about other people treating me wrong.” 

For dancers still mid-show, it was just one of Friday’s teachable moments. In “Arctic,” Healey’s students took on climate change just days before smoke from Canada’s wildfires rolled in over New Haven, making the air unsafe to breathe. As they moved across the stage in blocks of blue and white, students reveled in the stillness and strength of holds, floorwork and turns, sometimes moving from one into the next so fluidly it seemed they were melting.  

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Students in Healey's "Arctic," which takes on climate change. 

That sense of speaking truth to power echoed through Beyoncé’s “Freedom,” which Claxton choreographed last year and has grown with her class of eighth graders. Beneath the pulsing, blood red light, students remained completely still, their bodies slumped behind chairs as a single silhouette came alive before the group. From the speakers, Beyoncé’s voice wove through the gym. When synth and percussion came in, students sprang onto their chairs, all power. 

Friday, both teachers and their students also leaned all the way into the joy, ecstasy and thrill of movement, from Healey’s propulsive, heart-racing good “Kill The Lights” and celebration of jazz technique to Claxton’s jubilant “Working Day and Night,” which is the kind of dance that Dolly Parton always deserved for “9 To 5.” In a conversation after the performance, Healey said that keeping that balance is essential—and that it makes taking on tough issues that much easier.  

Nowhere, perhaps, was that clearer than “Rhythm of the Heat,” with which Claxton’s eighth graders closed the show. To drums that rang out over the stage and surrounding rows of seats, students began on the ground, moving back and forth as if they were vibrating in place. As Peter Gabriel’s voice floated over them, they rose at the shoulders, their bodies snapping into a V shape and then melting back into the ground. 

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Top: Students in "Rhythm of the Heat." Bottom: Claxton's sixth graders in "Malevolent Landscape."

Then, it was all strength and grace. Students rose in groups of two and three, legs cutting through the air as their classmates seemed to awaken fully around them. In the audience, ear-splitting cheers came from every direction. Onstage, students exploded into movement, their feet and hands flying as drums hammered a heartbeat. As Langley glided across the front of the stage one last time, students carefully lifted Maegiani Davenport behind him.

As Gabriel wailed over the track—inspired by Carl Jung's 1925 visit to East Africa, and very much channeling that Collective Unconscious from Kimberly Avenue almost 100 years later—limbs flew through the air. Students, careful even in their fast movement, let the music take them, their bodies melting into the drums for a finish kissed by African dance. 

In interviews and writing prompts both before and after the show, several of them expressed how transformative dance has been during their time at BRAMS. Solveigh Jones, a student of Claxton’s who is going to Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in the fall, said that movement has become a daily reminder of joy, particularly now that classes are back in person.

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Healey's fifth grade students in "Go The Distance."

Claxton has also helped her recognize her own power, she said. “She basically brung it out of me … I feel happy when I dance,” she said. 

“I’ve used it as my coping skill,” said seventh grader Mia Mathewson. “It helps me express my emotion.”

McKenzie Smith, a seventh grader who is studying with Healey, said she lets the music take over until she feels free. For her, Friday’s performance was a chance to remember what it felt like to be fully in her body. 

“The performance felt amazing,” she said. “I got on stage and all my worries just went away, and all I was doing was listening to the music and remembering the counts!”

For eighth grader Ava Rising, who is also studying with Healey, “the performance felt like an extension of myself,” she said. “I feel free when I dance. I can express everything I’ve felt in my body and get it all out. Any emotions I’ve held in can be fully let out when I dance and I will not be judged at all.” 

To watch more from the concert, click on the videos above.