At The New Victory Theater, we prepare New York City kids aged 16-19 for future academic and career success with a three-year program called the New Victory Usher Corps
. Pairing mentorship and life skills workshops with jobs in the arts, the Usher Corps takes pride in the talented and diverse group of young adults who help New Vic families have the very best experience at our theater.
Shemar Pelzer is in his second year as an usher. He is currently a senior at Brooklyn Lab High School where he helps coach the women's softball team, plays baseball and actively participates in the stepping community. He's looking forward to college applications and is excited about all the shows this season, especially Step Afrika!'s The Migration
this November. This past summer, he worked closely with the New Victory Education Department and here, Courtney J. Boddie, Director of Education, School Engagement, sits down with Shemar to talk about how his life has changed #BecauseofArtsEd.
This post was originally seen on AmericansfortheArts.org.
C: Thanks for being here, Shemar! You've been an Usher for two years, and over the summer you worked on Victory Dance, which features NYC-based dance companies in performances curated for kids. What pulled you to this program?
Im really interested in dance and when I heard about the performances, it sounded really well put together. The artistry was really amazing. Penelope, a New Vic Teaching Artist, introduced me to Ronald K. Brown
, one of the Victory Dance choreographers, because she knew I admired his work. It felt surreal to be able to compliment his work in person. He's inspired me so much and I can't wait to take a class with him so I can learn more and show him my dedication.
C: That's awesome—what a wonderful and unexpected outcome. How would you describe the kids reaction to the dance pieces?
I think that the kids really loved it. There have been times when I've been in the house and have seen kids moving and they couldn't stop. Kids are very creative and they love stuff like this. A lot of them had never seen dance before and it's exciting for them, and it was just as thrilling for me to see their experience.
C: Yeah, a lot of kids aren't used to seeing contemporary dance and how it's connected to the social and cultural dances they already do. That's why we have these conversations with the kids in between each performance—we find that their responses were really insightful. How are you involved in the arts, how have the arts been present in your life?
At age nine I started dancing and putting on little shows. My sisters were dancers so I followed in their footsteps. In middle school, stepping coach Kenneth Armstead visited and gave a demonstration. I immediately decided that I needed to join his group. After about a year he started a new group and I became one of the four founding members of the team. In our first competition we got second, then third, then we started winning first place. Suddenly, we were regional champions for three years! The team really inspired me to really push my limits. I had to take advantage of the opportunities that a lot of kids don't have and really go for it.
Later, the team fell apart. It was really devastating for me. I took a year off because I couldn't even think of performing anymore. But then, I met another dance team that my friend was a part of and I tried out and I made it! Learning this style of dance was completely outside of my comfort zone. How they moved and choreographed was so different, but I totally fell in love with it. The type of dance is called Underground, made up of reggae, hard core, girly and pumping. While hard core's my favorite, pumping was a bigger challenge because it requires a lot of arm movement and my arms were so stiff from years of stepping. Now, I study three main categories—stepping, hip hop and African. I've also tried a little bit of salsa.
C: As I was watching you tell this story, this is the most animated that I've seen you. When people engage in the arts, it's like a light turns on inside of them. It seems like dance is a really exciting thing for you and it really helps you engage.
As a kid, you see a show and you can just learn by watching. The idea of how arts are made and what it takes to create art—all of those skills can apply to other things. Through dance and through my work with the Usher Corps, I've seen a lot of growth in my willingness to be more open to different things, seize opportunities and speak to different people. I recognize that this will help me in the future and I want to share that with others.
C: I agree, our goal isn't necessarily to make kids into artists. We want kids to know that there are careers in the arts, but we're not trying to get kids into the arts. Even with the Ushers, we want them to have performing arts in their lives but they don't have to be career artists.
Kids really do know what they want and sometimes the arts help to tap into that. If they think they want to start dancing because of Victory Dance, nothing stands in their way. If they experience arts for the first time as a New Victory Usher, who knows what they'll see in themselves.
C: I hear you're an advocate for the Usher Corps; what do you tell people and why do you share this opportunity with others?
I'm a very open-minded and open-hearted person. If someone is in need of something, I want to try to help them out. I tell people about how it's a three-year program that helps you get ready for the world. I say it requires dedication and the ability to adapt and learn what's going on to take advantage of all the program can offer you.
I like to see the Usher Corps as a job readiness program, where you get prepared to start your career. There are different things that the New Victory helps you learn that other jobs wouldn't. When you have an opportunity like this, you just have to take it. You never know how you'll grow!
C: It's like you get out of the program what you put into it. The fact that you're a dancer, that you're willing to go outside of your own community and comfort zone and share your craft and talk to people about your job—you're being both an artist and an advocate.
S: Performing in the arts is like a ministry—there's a lot of outreach when you go out and visit kids going through hard situations. Your work and your performance shows different kinds of representations or ideas that may inspire them.
C: Why do you think arts and arts education are important for kids?
S: When exposed to the arts, kids experience new and different things. They can develop entirely new interests from it, because kids are very creative. The arts help kids learn about passion, dedication and what they want to do in the future. Even if they want to be something like a doctor or a lawyer, the arts teach specific skills that help them reach their goals.
Courtney J. Boddie, New Victory Director of Education/School Engagement, oversees the New Victory Education Partnership program and professional development training in the performing arts for teachers. Ms. Boddie was President of the Association of Teaching Artists (ATA) from 2015 to 2017 and is currently on the Board of Directors. Additionally, she serves on the Teaching Artist Committee of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable, the editorial board for the Teaching Artist Journal and is a member of the National Teaching Artist Collective in association with the National Guild for Community Arts Education. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and The New School. Prior to joining The New Victory Theater in 2003, Ms. Boddie was Program Associate for Empire State Partnerships (NYSCA) and a teaching artist for Roundabout Theatre Company. She received her Master's degree from the Educational Theatre Graduate Program at New York University.