A half dozen young girls stood on mats in a downstairs room of the Five Towns Community Center in Lawrence and awaited instruction from Alexandria Thomas, who at 24, is not that far removed from standing with her students.
Dancing since she was 2, Thomas, also a former Inwood Buccaneer and Lawrence High School cheerleader, has been connected with the Community Center since the fifth grade. She has been a program participant, employee or a program leader.
The current dance program that meets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays is an outgrowth of previous ones Thomas has led in the past six years. Blending her experience and taking into consideration the coronavirus pandemic, she aims to provide an outlet for her students.
“The program got started after me wanting to bring together a community of people who needed an out for energy, for expression, for creativity and for love,” Thomas said, as she awaited her students for the Wednesday session on Jan. 27. “A lot of people don’t have a niche, a lot of people don’t have a specialty, a lot of people don’t have an out that allows them to let go of stress, and I thought that within this time of Covid and everybody having to stay at home, it would be a good time.”
She understands what it means to overcome challenges as Thomas said that it is difficult to maintain a clientele, “Because sometimes people don’t take you seriously, but you have to keep going and keep inspiring people and keep going, climbing past obstacles because if you don’t you kind of get stuck in the same places you’ve been,” she said.
Seeing that young people have been affected psychologically by the isolation that quarantining amid the pandemic has caused, Thomas said the program is an affordable opportunity for children, the students range in age from 2 to 14, to learn dance, be creative and have a safe place to express themselves. “I started this program specifically for this area, this year so the other programs I had before was not for now but this one is for now – Covid,” she said.
With five of the six students in attendance at 5 p.m., Thomas brings her intimate class to attention with several beginning exercises tied to teaching technique and body discipline. After working with the girls in front of the class, Thomas then walks around the room to provide individual instruction.
West Hempstead Middle School eighth-grader Vivian Thomas, 13, has also been dancing since she was a much younger girl, even being trained by her cousin Alexandria. “There was nothing to do, so I thought it would be fun to come and dance,” Vivian said, adding that she has learned more about other genres of dance and hip hop and contemporary are her favorites.
Thomas thinks that this iteration of her dance program, one she hopes to can be replicated at other community centers, is different from her previous ones because of her improved understanding of connecting to people.
“I feel like there was a lot of dysconnectivity over the last couple of years between a lot of groups,” Thomas said. “The racial divide, social injustices, gender inequality, any of those things because it all wraps it into the arts, it all wraps into to people being creative within themselves and having to let go of emotions. But some people don’t realize that actually comes from being structured and what you have learned in life.”
A connection appears to being made with Makiyha Johnson, 12, a sixth-grader at Junior High School 190 Russel Sage in Queens. Taking part in the dance program, “So, I have something to do while corona is going on at my school,” said Johnson, who never danced before and learned there are many genres with hip hop being her favorite. “I like that you can just bring all your energy out during dance and give it all the best.”
Having to present dance concepts to varied ages is a challenge, Thomas admitted, saying that she has learned that younger kids need attention and how to learn.
“Younger kids need stability they need to know structure, they need to figure out what time, they need to figure to how to follow rules and they have to learn how to learn,” she said. “I can’t try to teach a kid how to learn versus a kid that’s already been through elementary school and high school, and they already sat through classrooms and met teachers, so basically they need a different dance structure and basically I put these lessons in place for these specific children.”
Saying “dance is good for your physical and spiritual health,” Five Towns Community Center Executive Director K. Brent Hill noted the impact of Thomas’s program. “Our dance program provides our youth a positive outlet to express their creativity, interact with others and have fun,” he said. “The program, open to boys and girls, exhibits the center’s continued investment in our young people.”
Thomas is planning to have a recital on the third or fourth weekend in June, and have it livestreamed.
“It actually feels really amazing,” she said about leading a program in a building that she grew up in. “There are times that you doubt yourself. I just thank God every day that I’m blessed.”
To register for Thomas’s dance program email Youth Services Coordinator Sasha Young at email@example.com.