Creating Access to the Arts for Girls

Photo – Carmen Samuel

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center hosted its 12th annual Girl Scouts Sleepover April 7-8, 2018, an event geared towards giving girls early access to cultural experiences that will enrich and transform their lives. Over the past six years, I have participated in four of these NJPAC events and they are so much fun! This year, a multicultural group of 131 Girl Scouts of Northern New Jersey—from Brownies (grades 2-3) to Seniors (grades 9-10)—along with their troop leaders and parents, had quite an engaging experience.

After check-in and orientation, the girls attended a performance of Sleeping Beauty by the Russian National Ballet. Not only were the girls able to marvel at the beauty and grace of the dance on stage, they also were surrounded by and able to experience the beauty of the auditorium. Following the performance, the girls took a group photo with the lead dancers. Afterwards, they were held spellbound during a literary presentation of the book Firebird by NJPAC Teaching Artist Wincey Terry. Firebird was written by American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American, female principal dancer Misty Copeland. During the session, the girls learned about the extraordinary accomplishments of Misty; about her determination, her ability to overcome obstacles, and her drive to develop her self-esteem. Ms. Terry dialogued with the girls about their own aspirations and encouraged them to be bold, dynamic and courageous in their career goals, just like Misty Copeland.

The next morning, the girls were treated to breakfast, followed by a Yoga class and a choice of either line dancing or Latin fusion. The troop leaders and parents also joined in. There was a great flurry of activity, dance and movement in several of NJPAC’s spaces. The girls even received a Girl Scout badge for their participation in the weekend event.

The parents and troop leader all commented to me that the girls had a great experience. From my perspective, what I continue to find most exciting about this annual event is giving these girls access to the arts center. I love the fact that when the Girl Scouts spend the night sleeping in the NJPAC lobby they claim the space as their own. This plants the seeds that this cultural institution not only belongs to their community, but it also belongs to each of them! I am thrilled that this organic engagement, facilitated through dance and dialogue, fosters a connection with the next generation of potential artists, dancers and audience members.

Researchers continue to document the impact of the arts on children, including helping them to develop creative and critical thinking skills; the ability to communicate and collaborate, and the determination to persevere. A U.S. Department of Education study titled “Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement” refers to a UCLA study of 25,000 middle and high school students that concluded students with high arts involvement performed better on standardized achievement tests than students with low arts involvement. Moreover, the study found that high arts-involved students also watched fewer hours of TV, participated in more community service and reported less boredom in school.

I remember when I was the age of the Brownies, my mom took me to McCormick Place in Chicago to see the ballet Swan Lake, which was a decisive moment that ultimately charted my career in the arts. So, I personally know the impression a performance or cultural experience can have on a young mind. I applaud the efforts of the troop leaders and parents who brought their Girl Scouts to the sleepover. NJPAC will continue its efforts to cultivate a connection to the arts for these girls and other future audiences through the allocation of resources, planning, staff outreach, and community engagement. I know many other cultural institutions, such as museums, also offer sleepovers and that is great. It’s important that all of us take responsibility to create ongoing ways for the next generation of girls, their families, and their organizations to access and experience the arts in unique ways that will positively impact them for the rest of their lives.