CSA grad keeps the 216 in his heart, offers kids hope through dance–Lee McKinstry (2016)
It’s a fair June evening and Nehemiah Spencer sways stageside at Wade Oval Wednesday, clad in black-on-black Converse and a crew neck festooned with the familiar red curves of the Coca-Cola logo. Today’s theme is “Reggae Night,” and the assembled families are chatty and sporting Bob Marley T-shirts. Spencer has picked up a loose branch in each hand and moves his arms in easy rhythms, improvising a deft twirl of one wrist in time with the band. A few huddled couples smile at him from their blankets, unsure if he’s part of the show.
Spencer, a graduate of the Cleveland School of the Arts (CSA) and Juilliard, is now a company dancer with the Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York City. The Glenville native is preparing for a new show with the company in Israel. So what’s he doing in Cleveland on a Wednesday night?
Spencer comes home every summer. In 2012, he founded the Nehemiah Project, a dance-intensive effort that provides affordable instruction to inner-city youth. Beyond typical lessons in technique, however, the program holds classes geared toward social justice, covering topics on everything from bullying prevention to race relations workshops.
“For example, I know that bullying is not just physical, but most of the time, there’s an aggression that needs to be let out, in some cases physically,” says Spencer. “I wanted people to realize that there are different ways you can use your body to allow yourself to feel liberated. That’s what dance basically does.”
Every year, the program tackles a new community initiative. One summer, the students created a showcase for nursing home patients, choosing the venue and choreographing the piece themselves. Last year, the group held an anti-bullying flash mob in Tower City, dancing to “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The Cleveland-based MadWerkz Studios filmed it, and created a documentary short that was shown at three film festivals, winning the “Audience Choice Award” at the ICE Film Festival in Dayton. For several summers, students have participated in diversity and community relations seminars hosted by the Shaker Heights High School Group on Race Relations and the Cleveland Police Department.
“We had our first student alumni of the The Nehemiah Project graduate from college just recently and that’s huge,” says Obadiah Baker, founder of Tender Hearts Crusades, the nonprofit that acts as the Project’s primary fiscal sponsor. “That’s the whole point – to give them the emotional tools they need to cope with the reality of life. We’re trying to build resiliency in at-risk youth, especially those that are in disadvantaged, underserved areas in America. We want to equip them with the tools they need to endure in any type of environment, especially because of their social position within American society.”
But on this summer night, the kids are at Wade Oval as part of a collaboration with Fresh Camp, an urban gardening and hip-hop recording program for Cleveland youth. They’ve created a modern dance piece to a song the Fresh Campers wrote and produced. The performance starts quietly, with four dancers stretching their arms into acute angles to a folk-inflected melody. Soon, the bass rises, and the Fresh Camp MCs enter, rapping “Everything is better when we work together!” while the dancers spin. By the end of the set, they’ve invited half of Wade Oval to join them onstage.
It’s more than Spencer ever hoped for. He started the program as a one-off after a conversation with his mother, Callie, lamenting the lack of affordable dance courses in Cleveland. Through CSA, he traveled to dance conferences across the country, but knew many of his peers didn’t have that opportunity. In the Nehemiah Project’s first year, he taught the classes himself and created a Kickstarter to pay for costumes. Soon, he’d raised $1,500. Five years, a number of Juilliard Summer Arts Grants and a fateful meeting with Baker later, and the Nehemiah Project is a rising force in Cleveland arts education.
For Spencer, the program is a tribute to his mother, who serves as a mentor and for many young dancers. When he founded the Nehemiah Project, he also established a scholarship fund for graduating CSA seniors and named it after her – the Callie E. Taylor Award.
“Programs like this are important, because they give students an alternative viewpoint on the reality that we live in, because we can live in a really scary place. But it doesn’t have to be, if people find something that they’re passionate about or something that scares them, and do it anyway.”