• Nicole Kawell
  • Chicago Dance Institute founder Nicole Kawell says dance can be transformative for kids.

“Let me see your best crispy hands,” Nicole Scatchell shouts as she dramatically extends her fingers in front of her body.

Thirty small hands instantly shoot out, frantically waving and wiggling, each student mimicking Scatchell, executing the “crispiest” of hand movements. The live drum beats kick back in and the third and fourth graders of A. Philip Randolph Elementary begin to clap, jump, and stomp, filling the dimly lit gymnasium with a flood of contagious energy. Scatchell and the other Chicago Dance Institute instructors crack smiles while still focusing on each individual dancer’s every movement.

Founded in 2008, Chicago Dance Institute is a nonprofit organization designed to use the arts as transformative fuel for Chicago’s youth through in-school partnerships. CDI’s newest partnership is with Randolph Elementary, located in West Englewood.

The south-side school, like many other CPS locations, lacks funds for arts programming, which hinders students from “going on this journey together and having this accomplishment,” says Nicole Kawell, the program’s founder.

She explains, “The arts should be of equal importance. I think they should be accessible to all children. In order to do that, it needs to be part of the school day.”

At the program’s core, CDI aims to enhance underserved communities and schools by building third-through-fifth grade students’ confidence, social-emotional development, respect, team work, and listening skills, in an attempt to match classroom curriculums.

“We require the teachers to be present, that’s because we want them to really engage and support their students and it also starts to break down whatever perceptions they have of their students,” Kawell says.

The “shy” student in the back row is no longer ignored or hesitant as Scatchell swings around the back of the gym, creating a new space where the back row of dancers can now take center stage.

“In a nutshell, that’s the entire point of our program,” Kawell explains. “We always say, ‘Teach to the back of the class, teach to the child that is really shy.’ The entire process is geared toward how does every child succeed equally, understanding that success is defined differently for each child.”

Janice Harper, a 20-year educator at Randolph and Chicago native, has witnessed various forms of success in her classroom since the arrival of CDI two weeks ago.

“They really, really love it and encourage each other,” Harper says. “I don’t know what they’re going to do when it’s over.”

CDI has just concluded its two-week residency at Randolph, where students met daily for 45 minutes with CDI instructors, incorporating live music, imagery, sign language, silent instruction, problem-solving skills, and ended the program with a public performance on Halloween.

But for an elementary school like Randolph, one in need of additional arts education, what comes next?

Half- and full-year programs are offered by CDI, where classes meet once a week for 45 minutes and perform publicly multiple times. Yet the struggle to properly fit a school’s budgetary and scheduling needs can be challenging for a variety of reasons, especially for the Englewood/Gresham Elementary Network.

“I would just love to see it continue,” Harper says. “If other schools have the arts, why don’t we have it? We need it. I think it’s all a matter of someone fighting for it. The money is there, you just need someone to fight for it.”

Kawell, Scatchell, and the entire CDI program continue to fight for the arts.

The drums grow louder in unison with the dancers’ eight-count stomps and claps, each child adding their own twist to the dance moves, as their eyes dart towards one another, the instructors, and their teachers.

“You can see how they are noticing their self-worth and how it’s attached to trying your best and somebody really noticing that,” Kawell says. “That these students realize that they tried their best and feel so great about it and now think, how can I apply this academically, socially, in other dynamics in my life? This is what’s happening in the nature of the work itself.”