In New Orleans, you are as likely to see people dancing down the street as you are to see a yellow taxi-cab in New York. In other words, dance is as much a part of this city as the potholes and poboys.

In 2012, Laura Stein and Jessi Donley noticed that New Orleans was experiencing a lack of high-quality, accessible dance programming. They immediately stepped in to fill the void, converting Laura’s bywater home into a functioning dance studio (living room), art gallery (kitchen), and performance space (backyard).

True to its name, the Speakeasy Studio rapidly gained popularity through word of mouth alone. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Laura and Jessi partnered with a local property developer to build a state-of-the-art dance facility with two dance studios and a performance space on St. Claude. Dancing Grounds found itself surrounded by a vibrant community with numerous schools, and the integration of youth programming happened rather organically.

Since the official opening of Dancing Grounds in 2014, they now offer over 20 adults classes per week in addition to school-based, weekend and summer youth programs.

Dancing Grounds offers a unique space in which young students can learn to safely express themselves freely and without judgement. From the Junior Company, open to 3rd-5th graders, to Elite Feet, an audition-based performance group, Dancing Grounds fosters a deep love of dance while also teaching valuable life-lessons.

Dancing Grounds team-member Chanice Holmes fondly recalls a young member of the Junior Company, Elijah, who had never performed before coming to Dancing Grounds. When he first started he was very shy and quiet, but gradually came out of his shell as other Dancing Grounds students welcomed him with open arms. Now, Elijah has performed four or five times and engages his peers with newfound confidence.

In 2016, Dancing Grounds launched Dance for Social Change, originally a series of workshops culminating in multiple performances. Each year, students choose a social justice issue important to them to be the focus of Dance for Social Change. Since 2016, students have tackled issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline, gender inequality, and stigma surrounding mental health.

Dance for Social Change has now evolved into a year-long endeavor due to its incredible success, with rehearsals beginning in September, a Festival Week at the end of March, and a performance tour during April and May.

Dancing Grounds students and the local community come together in preparation for Festival Week, forging partnerships with social-justice focused businesses and vendors. This year’s theme is “Reclaiming Our Home: A Festival Centered on Gentrification and Displacement” and will feature various community partners addressing these issues. From the rehearsals to the final performances, Dance for Social Change gives students a platform and a voice that cannot be ignored.

Dance for Social Change’s festival week is March 23-31. Click here to view all the events.

Erin Cohn is an Editorial Intern at Nola Family.

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