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Young stars audition for roles of a lifetime

on October 15, 2009

Six-year old Cameron bobbed his shoulders and quickly shifted his weight from one foot to the next. His brown eyes focused all the while on his hip-hop teacher, Natasha Jacobs, who was directing his next move. “Rock it out,” hollered Jacobs over the beats streaming from the CD player.

Cameron was dancing next to 26 other kids at the auditions for the Destiny Arts Center’s first-ever Junior Performance Company. In the colorfully carpeted multi-purpose room of Knox Elementary School on 42nd Street, where Destiny Arts rents space, one girl bounced to the music in pink spandex pants and a blue t-shirt, while a boy swayed from left to right, his dreads, dangling from beneath a black fedora hat.  The kids were letting their bodies move and groove to the music while trying their best not to make a mistake.

“Destiny Arts gives young people an opportunity to develop themselves –physically, emotionally, and intellectually,” said Oakland-raised Junior Company co-director Ariel Luckey. “It helps them become well rounded healthy and embodied people.” The program, which was founded 19 years ago by Oakland-based Kajukenbo martial artist Kate Hobbs, now offers lessons and mentors to teach kids performance and leadership skills through martial arts, hip-hop, modern dance, and theater classes.

The Junior Company will perform in professional productions across the Bay Area, including a March blowout show at Laney College. “I feel excited about the audition,” said Cameron at his hip-hop class the week before. “I feel kind of nervous, but I’m still ready to dance.”

He then dove into a one-handed handstand. “I like all the cool moves and the flips,” he said, when asked what he liked about hip-hop.

In 1988 Hobbs created Project DESTINY, to work with kids who had disciplinary issues at Berkeley’s Longfellow Elementary School. They found their program such an effective space for kids to express themselves and learn self-discipline that they decided to expand.

Over the years, it developed from a single-school extra-curricular activity to an after-school, weekend, and summer program for kids and teens. The program’s nine staff-members, and twenty-three instructors, serve over 150 young people at their center, ages 3 through 18, and reach more than 600 students in the Oakland Unified School District.

“They need some interesting activity that keeps them engaged after school – that keeps them out of trouble.” Crowell said in an interview at their center.

She was wearing a black t-shirt that read “Destiny” in their signature graffiti font. “We’re teaching them to feel confident and competent in their bodies,” Crowell said.   “And we’re teaching them the skills of violence prevention– how to keep themselves safe and how to solve problems creatively rather than violently,” she said.

Integrated into all their classes are three sets of guidelines practiced by youth and staff. They include the “Warriors Code,” “Seven Steps of Conflict Resolution,” and “5 Fingers of Violence Prevention.”

The “Warriors Code” includes lines such as, “A Warrior is skilled in body and kind in heart.” The guidelines help youth develop self-respect, communication, and self-defense skills, so they are prepared to solve daily conflicts and protect themselves in physically threatening situations.

“It’s a skill set to help children be aware of their surroundings,” Luckey said.  “It’s so that they can be able to size up a situation and make accurate and effective judgment calls of what they need to do.”

The program also works to help students process the stimulation they take in every day so they learn how to become mindful young adults. “You’re getting people who are watching TV, who are plugged in the same way that society is – literally plugged into their iPods, listening to fairly violent stuff,” Crowell said. “We ask our students, ‘Let’s just unplug for now? Let’s stop texting. Let’s look at each other eye to eye.’”

And they do. All classes at Destiny Arts begin and end in a circle with breathing exercises and meditation.   At the audition, there were kids who regularly took classes at Destiny Arts and others who were there for the first time. All were asked to sit together in a large circle to clear their minds and focus on their performance. “Go ahead and sit comfortably in your body and close your eyes, and take a deep breath. In through you nose, and out through your mouth,” said Luckey. “Be present, and give us the best audition you can give.”

Video Crew: Becky Palmstrom, Jun Stinson, Lauren Callahan and Mario Furloni

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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