Diablo Ballet teaches students coping skills through dance

Diablo Ballet teaches students coping skills through dance

Diablo Ballet teaches students coping skills through dance
PEEK director Rosselyn Ramirez demonstrates a dance with a student.

WALNUT CREEK, CA (June 11, 2024) — When people think of a professional ballet company, they often visualize slender, muscular dancers whose incredible strength translates into beautiful movements.

While that is certainly the case with Diablo Ballet, the 30-year-old company has another side – one that features young enthusiastic students finding new ways to express emotions and deal with challenges.

“I always wanted to be part of the community, and arts education has always been really important to me. I knew when we started the ballet company that I also wanted to start something more educational,” said Diablo Ballet co-founder Lauren Jonas.

Just a year after Diablo Ballet’s first performance, Jonas established the PEEK Outreach Program. Since 1995, it has reached more than 75,000 under-served children as well as at-risk teens incarcerated in the juvenile justice system.

Boosting self-esteem

The only arts education program of its kind offered by a professional dance company in the Bay Area, PEEK provides in-school creative, social and emotional curriculum designed to help students express their feelings through movement and teamwork. The youngsters learn to utilize dance, body language and facial expressions to help cope with challenging situations as well as to enhance their mental, emotional and physical well-being.

According to Jonas, the program helps students develop self-esteem by expressing their emotions and experiences through original movement and encourages teamwork as students work in a group to present a story.

“We usually start with the second and third graders talking about something in a circle, and then we ask them to show a movement that represents what they were just talking about. Then we’ll have them mirror each other and memorize the movements before we put it to music,” Jonas said. “It helps with their academics as well, since we’re working on how to memorize.”

PEEK’s curriculum is based on the California Visual and Performing Arts Standards and National Core Standards. In addition to dance, the program brings in a Bolivian guitarist to talk about rhythm, clap complex rhythms with the students and show them how to do improvisation.

“Our program director Rosselyn Ramirez and the dancers she brings have built such trust and connection with the students,” said Jonas. “We’re in nine schools every single month for the academic year, plus Mt. McKinley Court School housed in Juvenile Hall. What’s great is the students don’t feel like it’s another class. They’re having fun and learning in different ways.”

Making a connection

Diablo Ballet founder Lauren Jonas encourages three students in the company’s PEEK program to portray an emotion through movement.

The program came to Mt McKinley in 2015 after then principal Lynn Mackey (now Contra Costa Superintendent of Schools) asked Jonas to bring arts education to the school.

“These kids in juvenile hall are often on their own. Their parents and siblings might be incarcerated, so they don’t have anyone they can rely upon. We show up week after week, and the consistency is very important for them,” Jonas said. “We talk a lot about self-image and how they see themselves in the world. Many of the students aren’t very verbal, but they can connect to the physical movements.”

Jonas found the PEEK program even more valuable during and following COVID, when it addressed mental health issues students developed during the isolation.

“We had so many social, emotional conversations with the students as they talked about their feelings and fears as they began to navigate in-person learning again,” Jonas said.

Moving beyond the self

Not content with just running a professional dance company and bringing arts education to the schools, Jonas branched out further. Members of Diablo Ballet now bring dance to Parkinson’s patients at two different locations.

“They say dance for the elderly is the best thing for your brain and mobility – better than crossword puzzles or golf. And that is especially true for Parkinson’s patients,” explained Jonas. “One woman in our class was having trouble walking even with a walker. But with the rhythms of a waltz, repeated over and over, she was able to use the walker and graduate to walking sticks.”

Jonas also enjoys exposing her professional dancers to young students and the elderly through the PEEK program, especially the younger dancers.

“I feel it’s important for an artist to give back because the art itself is kind of self-centered. You’re giving to an audience, but to do that you make yourself the best you can be, which is self-centered – so it’s good to have them involved with the students,” Jonas said.

For more information on the PEEK Program and Diablo Ballet, go to diabloballet.org.

Related story: Diablo Ballet class for Parkinson’s patients proves everyone can dance.

Sally Hogarty
Sally Hogarty

Sally Hogarty is well known around the Bay Area as a newspaper columnist, theatre critic and working actress. She is the editor of the Orinda News. Send comments to sallyhogarty@gmail.com