Co-Op Students Dance Through Works In Progress

Lucy Gellman | November 17th, 2023

Co-Op Students Dance Through Works In Progress

Co-Op High School  |  Culture & Community  |  Dance  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture

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Top: Johnny Johnson and Co-Op students Wednesday morning. Bottom: Freshman Danielle Hawkins. 

Dakarai Langley and Danielle Hawkins stood center stage, surrounded by a circle of their classmates. As Adele's vocals swirled around them—Never mind, I'll find someone like you! I wish nothing but the best for you, too!—they moved in for a lift, then took a moment to pause. In the audience, four juniors in matching green leotards never took their eyes off the pair. They had been there so many times before.

"Y'all got this!" You got it!" they yelled in unison. Around them, the auditorium burst into applause. 

That support flowed through a now-annual celebration of dance works in progress at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School Wednesday morning, as dancers across all four grades came together to review, reflect on, and lift up each other's work on the school's main stage. After kicking off the day with master classes in hip hop, majorette, and contemporary technique from educators in the field, students gathered in Co-Op's auditorium for a peek at what each class has been working on. 

During the school year, it is the only opportunity young dancers get to be together as a single department. It doubled as a sneak preview for the school’s winter dance showcase, scheduled for the evening of December 5. 

"We are here, in this space, to be with one another," said teacher Lindsey Bauer, directing students to turn off their phones, and direct their full attention to the work of their peers on the stage. "We want you to see these dances. We want you to talk to each other and meet each other. I want you to be ever-present."

And for the entire morning, they were. From the moment students walked into the school Wednesday morning, still shaking the sleep from their eyes, to the time they left the auditorium with Nutri Grain bars and Rice Krispie treats hours later, they took the time to lift each other up, learning a language of mutual trust and support along the way. 

For freshmen and some sophomores, it marked the first time they had ever seen their peers perform, giving them a template for how to act as they navigate a new school. For many of the upperclassmen, it was a chance to remember where they'd been. Along the way, educators gave them a roadmap that centered collaboration over competition, curiosity and experiment over the fear of failure. 

A Co-Op Alum Comes Home 

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Johnson: "Anything that you do, try to put your mind to it. You don't know what doors it will open." 

That kind of relationship building started just before 8 a.m., as students spread out between floors of the school. Upstairs, Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School teacher Nikki Claxton greeted students in the school's second-floor studio, which looks out over College and Crown Streets with long windows and mirrors that line one side of the room. 

One floor down, filmmaker Isaiah Providence put his camera to the side for a day, and began warm ups for a hip hop class. One room over, Johnny Johnson walked onto Co-Op's main stage for the first time in almost a decade, and looked out over the place that helped make him into the dancer he is today. 

Now the founder and head of The Majorette & Dance Factory, Johnson graduated from Co-Op in 2014, after falling in love with ballet and lyrical technique his sophomore year of high school. Wednesday, he said, it was his goal to both expose students to majorette—which has aspects of ballet, lyrical, jazz, contemporary, and West African dance as well as vogue and ballroom—and to help them feel more comfortable in their bodies. 

"Don't limit yourself," he said of his approach Wednesday. "You don't know what life will bring you. I went to school for biomedical and I'm currently in school to be a physician assistant. Fortunately, God had me in this predicament where I was able to give back by teaching. Anything that you do, try to put your mind to it. You don't know what doors it will open." 

That approach was clear as dancers trickled in, some still bleary-eyed, and he flowed right into warmups, music ringing the room into being. At a table toward the back of the room, veteran dance teacher Stephen Hankey watched his every move, squaring the wide-eyed, stubborn and dance-averse freshman who had once walked into his classroom with the fully formed educator he saw beneath the lights.

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Langley, who later shone as freshmen danced for their peers. 

As Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady" coasted over the stage, Johnson directed students in leaps, urging them to jump, strut, and swirl without fear of what their peers might think. Behind him, a line formed, some students barely leaving the ground as others looked out into the auditorium, found a spot to focus on, and let their feet fly from the floor. In the space before their landing, there was simply the confidence that they would return to the ground. 

"Jumps are supposed to be big! They're not supposed to be little!" Johnson said, a smile teasing at the edges of his mouth, when some of the leaps remained timid. "Listen. If it's new, it's okay for something to be new. I'm not expecting you guys to be perfect."

The words started to sink in somewhere around a cover of "One Night Only," from the movie Dreamgirls. As students melted from turns and floorwork into backbends, their carriages lifting, their bodies began to relax. Smiling as she looked across the stage, junior Da’Onna Bryant strutted forward with purpose, popping a hip as she stepped forward.

When it was time for senior Moenaya Grimes to take her turn on stage, she owned the space, her eyes trained on a single spot even as her body turned. From the wings, fellow senior Olivia Giglietti watched studiously, waiting for her moment in the spotlight.  

"I like the energy," Grimes said after the class. "I like the attitude. It feels like I can really show off my personality." 

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Senior Moenaya Grimes.

In the audience, Hankey followed students' every move, remembering how he and Johnson once found themselves totally at odds. When Johnson arrived at Co-Op in 2010, he wanted to study theater, and planned to transfer out of the dance department after a year. He received Cs on progress reports and pushed ballet away. Hankey, who runs his own dance company and has taught for decades, wasn't so easily dissuaded. 

"I pushed him and I worked with him," he remembered. Johnson, in turn, transformed into one of his star students. In class, he fell in love with lyrical dance for its ability to tell  a story. Outside of class, he studied dance on YouTube and watched the show "Dance Moms," folding some of that into his technique. After he graduated, he and Hankey kept tabs on each other. Last year, he was a dancer in "Terra Firma," performing in Hankey's Island Reflections Dance Theatre at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). 

Back onstage, Missy Elliott's "Shake Your Pom Pom" got dancers tapping their feet as Johnson introduced a routine from a field show. Slowly, he stepped forward, arms extending out to his sides, to the front, and around his head. He turned, reaching his right arm out behind him as the left came behind his ear Sinking into his knees, he pressed his chest forward, feet to the floor. 

When dancers shuffled along half-heartedly, he stopped and looked around, as if he was suddenly perplexed by what he was seeing. Sweat dripped from his brow, forming thick, tear-like lines that rolled down his cheeks. He let his hands rest on his hips, striking a pose even as he stilled.  

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"Y'all overthinking it!" he said, the exasperation adding an edge to his voice. "I don't see no confidence. If this was jazz dance, would you say, 'Oh! I can't!' No!"

The words seemed to sink in over the stage. When Elliott's vocals came back in, dancers steadied themselves, and began to move carefully through the routine. This time, they flowed as a coordinated group, arms flying out to their full wingspan as they moved to the sides, then to their faces, then to the front as if they were pushing a door all the way shut. True to Johnson's words,  

As they took a breather, juniors Da'Onna Bryant and Laveah Johnson said they were grateful for the class. Outside of school, both have danced majorette, and like its ability to blend multiple genres under a single umbrella. Years ago, it was that same pull that hooked Johnson on the art form. 

"You get to be free," Bryant said. "You don't gotta be stiff. It felt good." 

"It was actually a very humbling experience," Johnson himself said after teaching. "Co-Op is where I started dancing and I was introduced to dance. To give back to those kids, when I was once in their shoes, was very fulfilling to me."

"Let's Gooooooo!" 

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Da'Onna Bryant and Laveah Johnson.

That enthusiasm extended to the main stage as all four grades filed into the auditorium, ready to see what their classmates were working on for the first time since the beginning of the school year. Taking the stage, Bauer explained that the day—founded when Timothy Jones was still arts director at the school—existed not for critique, but for celebration. Currently, the department is still three weeks away from its winter performance, meaning that classes still have time to polish their works before they appear in front of an audience. 

"Dancers! The only appropriate response is what?" she asked before stepping back into the auditorium. Cacophonous, echoing applause filled the room. As the wings rippled, showing signs of life backstage, a cheer of "C'mon freshmen!" erupted from the center of the room, where a huddle of juniors waited with bated breath. 

On stage, members of the freshman class—including new dancers, who came into Co-Op with no knowledge of the art form—began to move slowly, percussion hammering beneath them. As tinny piano entered the fray, it was as if their torsos had transformed into the strong trunks of elephants, swaying in time with the sound. As they moved in unison, juniors and seniors called out to the underclassmen they knew, excited to see their first dance take shape. 

"Yessssssss freshman!" someone cried from where the seniors sat in a sea of black lycra, and a smattering of applause filled the silence that followed the shout. 

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Amarra Jacobs and Payton Goodwin. 

So too as the soundtrack switched to Adele's "Someone Like You," and Langley joined forces with Hawkins at the center of a group of dancers. Slowly, the two went in for a small lift and a delicate spin, as if Hawkins had become a wind-up dancer at the top of a music box. As their classmates spun off to the sides, leaving them center stage, juniors Melany Villar Perez and Alondra Rodriguez watched every movement, their breath nearly caught in their throats. 

"Y'all got it!" Rodriguez shouted as they hesitated before a lift, Hawkins' first in a dance class. It seemed like exactly what they needed to hear: both dancers exhaled visibly, and pressed forward. When they finished, cheers of "Encore!" filled the air. 

For almost 90 minutes—and in a school year that has still seen students adjusting to a new normal—that spirit never left the stage or the audience. To the persistent tap-tap-tapping of percussion and crash of cymbals, classmates cheered on sophomore Karli Babineau as she took flight, then struck a pose at the center of the stage. 

When fellow 10th grader Amarra Jacobs kicked off a dance with her first solo, popping a hip as she went, the room exploded into cheers of "Yessssss Amarra!" As sophomores leaned back into a kind of tortuous, crunch-like position, their toes pointed outward, it was the green-clad juniors who urged "Hold it! Hold it! You got it!" from the quarter-filled house.     

"I really like works in progress," Jacobs later said as she headed out with friend Payton Goodwin. "I felt like, starting off the dance, I had to be really strong." When she heard classmates calling out her name from the audience, it carried her. 

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Alondra Rodriguez and Melany Villar Perez.

Like her, it seemed that students could feel the support radiating through the room. After a lyrical, show-stopping solo that made her limbs seem as if they were made of the air alone, Villar Perez said she was grateful for the day, and the chance to support and be supported by her peers. After starting dance around the time she was three years old, she's never stopped. This year, she's part of a class that is taking Spanish dance for the first time, in a whirl and fit of flying red and black skirts. 

"I love how I get to see this improvement from freshman year," she said as Rodriguez translated beside her. "Every time I'm on stage, I feel this strength inside, like, 'Let's gooooo!' I start to get very emotional. Every time I dance on my own, I feel like I'm the only one in the world."

"I love being able to show what we've been working on," Rodriguez added. "The dance department—it's a very connected community."

Before leaving, Hawkins beamed thinking of what she'd learned both dancing and watching her classmates take the stage. While she's been dancing for 11 years, her freshman year at Co-Op has already opened her to new opportunities in the art form, and the ability to build trust through partner work. Outside of class, she still attends Top Hat Dance Academy in West Haven. 

"It's just something I really like to do ... it brings me joy," she said. "This [works in progress] is really nice, because I get to see where I'm going to be in a few years."