New Directions YouthArts
In a gym at the Spring Mountain Youth Camp outside of Las Vegas, David DeDera, a former instructor with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, has spent the past few weeks teaching 15 young adults the art of walking on stilts, juggling, and balancing spinning plates. But this workshop is not a laughing matter. DeDera is with Cirque du Monde, an outreach arm of Cirque du Soleil, and the teenagers are all convicted felons.
By training the young offenders in these acrobatic “circus arts,” DeDera is striving to instill discipline, teamwork, and trust in peers and adults, as well as a sense of pride in accomplishment. As these young men start to see themselves in a more positive light, their behavior inside the institution often improves noticeably, along with their odds of making a more successful transition to life on the outside, juvenile justice officials say.
Social Circus is one of a variety of offerings from the New Directions YouthArts (NDYA) program, run by the City of Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs. Professional teaching artists lead the workshops, which specifically target adjudicated or other at-risk youth.
Gabriel Falcon, a percussionist who works in Las Vegas nightclubs, also has a “side gig” in a residential center for teen girls with behavior and substance abuse problems. NDYA enlisted Falcon to teach the girls how to play congas and djembe drums, as well as “found objects,” like paint cans and buckets. The drumming gives girls a fun vehicle for group and individual musical expression, as well as a release for pent-up frustrations. End-of-workshop performances may represent one of the first times participants “are able to feel pride in their achievements and to celebrate with their families,” notes Darlene Terrill, an official with the WestCare facility.
The program has also enabled local Native American youth to work with mural painters and storytellers, while other at-risk populations had the opportunity to participate in dance, creative writing, and ceramics workshops.
“These are kids who need to know that not everybody has given up on them. And, by helping them think about their lives through the arts, they begin to say, ‘There are other alternatives for me. It doesn’t have to be this way.’ And, that’s what we’re striving for.”Patricia Harris, Cultural Administrator, City of Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs