By Doug Oakley email@example.com Published January 2015 OAKLAND -- When Marianna Hester arrived here from Burlington, North Carolina, she was a shy 16-year-old with little confidence.
For her, Burlington was a place "with no sidewalks, no BART, and if you don't have a car, you're not going anywhere."
Her town had no dance programs she knew of, certainly not anything like Rite of Passage in Oakland, a youth dance program run by Deborah Vaughan and her staff out of Dimensions Dance Theater, which Vaughan started more than 40 years ago.
Hester enrolled in the Rite of Passage program, learned to dance, put away her shyness and gained confidence that ultimately led her to college. The program is now in its 20th year, grooming kids from 8 to 18 in the big roomy halls of the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts on Alice Street.
Vaughan said dance is a way to bring truth to the stage. For the kids in her program, that means tapping into their creativity, discipline and teamwork, which serve as a healthy alternative to the city's constant lure of crime and violence.
"We always hear about the negative things that happen in Oakland in terms of violence, but there's so much creativity, too," Vaughan said. "Everything they do in the program overlaps into their lives. Once they finish a performance, they feel they have accomplished something, and they see the support from audiences and that encourages them to continue."
They come out of the program "better human beings," Vaughan said, and better able to face Oakland's harsh urban landscape.
"They motivated me to break out of my shell, basically," said Hester, who is now 21 and teaches hip-hop classes for the program. "They push you a lot. That's what motivated me to go to college. I was just thinking about going to Laney College, but I built this new confidence and applied to California State University East Bay and got in."
Today, she is studying human development and wants to start her own day care center.
Rite of Passage offers free programs in Oakland schools and paid classes all year round that cost about $150 for one of three sessions per year.
Kids learn traditional West African, Haitian, Cuban and Brazilian styles and more modern genres such as jazz, hip-hop, tap and ballet. The dance program usually includes "guest stars" like professional musicians, poets and dancers who weave their craft into the program.
At the end of each program, there is a final performance. Students can continue in an extension program and become "dance ambassadors" at schools, church events, fundraisers and other special events. Last year dancers performed at a Golden State Warriors game, Vaughan said.
Students learn not only how to move their bodies but also the history and stories behind ancient cultural movements.
"A great deal of our work has been about African and jazz dance, but we also teach the history of these dance forms and the events that occurred around them," Vaughan said. "Who were the people who did these dances and why they did they do them? It's an experience that makes you feel differently about life and how art can portray and bring to stage history and culture."
Vaughan, who also is a retired Contra Costa College dance and health teacher, said she tries to expose her students to other arts with visits to area theaters and art museums.
But it's getting onstage that really nourishes their personal growth, she said.
"We want to encourage students through their creativity to understand they can accomplish anything they want to," Vaughan said. "This is a supportive and safe environment where they can bring forth their creative ideas."
Vaughan grew up in Oakland housing projects near Seventh and Wood streets and later in North Oakland on 56th Street. She was a kid not unlike a lot of her current students when she discovered free dance classes in the city's recreation department under Bay Area dance legend Ruth Beckford.
"I was 13 years old, and through her I discovered dance and all its possibilities," Vaughan said. "She saw something in me and encouraged me to attend her African-Haitian dances classes at the time. Those experiences helped me find myself as a person. They helped me establish a career and ultimately helped me form the dance company."
That inspiration is what keeps her going, teaching new kids even after 20 years.
Rite of Passage currently offers free classes at Oakland High School and Oakland Technical High School. Vaughan is trying to get more middle school kids involved and is currently offering free classes to the first 20 students from West Oakland and Westlake middle schools who walk in and sign up. The next program starts Wednesday.
Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley