West Side non-profit dance group Local Motions may be in their sixth year of performing, but things are far from stable.
The group, located at 6246 W. North Ave., teaches West Side and Austin youth about dance. The group has been successful in their outreach, but as with many non-profits, they often find themselves struggling to stay afloat. The group is trying to overcome various financial challenges, not uncommon for arts organizations.
The troupe has been kept afloat, in large part, by the commitment of the students and owners, who paid for program expenses primarily through fundraisers, private sponsors and, at certain times, out of their own pockets.
“I wanted there to be a positive arts center on the West Side that children can attend and allow their creative voices to be heard,” said founder D’Lana O’Neil.
Although financial instability has not completely been eliminated, the program has recently benefitted from attention and operational grants from both the DHS and Maggie Daley’s After School Matters program. These were the first such grants received by the organization which is now hoping to become a fixture on the West Side.
It has also passed the six-year mark, an accomplishment in itself as many non-profits, no matter how well-intentioned, fail to survive past year five.
“We are very fortunate we are able to make this difference in the lives of these children,” O’Neil said. “I feel that when exposed to creative experience, children will build more than a sense of aesthetics. The arts can help develop critical thinking and communication skills, which support educational goals,” O’Neil said. “The performing arts especially support academic accomplishment in the language arts, fine arts, leadership and personal discipline.”
Although the dance studio, adorned with ceiling-high, mirrored walls and stained hardwood floors, is the primary focus of self-expression in the program, it is hardly the sole focus, as shown by the “Artists’ Corner” gallery paintings lining the walls above the coat racks.
“These children are just beaming with talent and potential,” O’Neil said. “They just need a forum to express what they can do, and parents have to take time to listen to them rather than always feeling the need to talk at them. They will tell you what is on their mind if you ask them.”
Understanding the need for self-expression at a young age is one that O’Neil certainly is familiar with. She grew up in Chicago’s Bridgeport community at a time when she was one of only 15 black families in the area, and there was so prejudice, it was not uncommon for minorities to be assaulted for walking under the wrong viaducts at the wrong time.
She and her six siblings were forced to entertain themselves in the form of plays, dances and puppet shows held in the family home. They would write, produce, and create the dcor for them and invite friends to view them.
This sparked a desire to create programs for children, particularly in areas where none were available.
After working with the Chicago Public Schools for about two years, O’Neil eventually decided to open Local-Motions Inc. in 2000, targeting the Austin community, which she felt needed an arts facility.
“I, Sandra Simmons [artistic director] and Theresa Molina [chief financial officer] have been diligent in keeping the program going even through the rougher times,” said O’Neil.
“We currently are holding the summer camp, allowing students to participate when school lets out. During the school year it’s a five-day-a-week after-school program and in the winter, there’s a winter program,” adds O’Neil.
Local Motions focuses on children, 5-13 years old. It currently serves approximately 40 students throughout the year.
Among the students involved with summer activities?”which include dance, painting, crafts and producing a stage production of Guys and Dolls in August?”is Nia Hunt, a 9-year-old student of Longfellow Elementary, who has been in the program for three years.
“I like the staff. Everybody is really nice and I like to dance,” said Hunt. “We work together really well, and they give us freedom to try different dances.”
Naja Lewis-Pugh, a 10-year-old native New Yorker, says she’s enjoying the summer camp because of the freedom they have when doing arts projects and planning for the play.
“We did one project where we split in groups and had to do T-shirts describing everyone in the group using the same lettering,” said Lewis-Pugh, who may be summoned to take a significant role in the planning of the New York-based Guys and Dolls production. “One kid called himself ‘Extraordinary Eaters’ and another was ‘Mysterious Motions.’ It was really a fun project.”
Every project the children work on is supervised by staff members who coordinate to assure that the children are working together to accomplish their goals.
Staffer Stephanie Martinez, currently a freshman at Noble Street Charter School, was interested in working with Local-Motions because of her love for the arts, especially dance.
“I wanted to work with children in the capacity of the arts because they just have so much to offer,” said Martinez. “I can see myself in them since I want to pursue dance in college. [Working here] has been a terrific experience.”
However, while Martinez and Lewis-Pugh are participating in the summer camp exclusively, many members of the staff and student body are around for the long haul, including 11-year-old Amani Howard, who has been at Local Motions for five years.
“My mother encouraged me to come because of my interest in dance,” said Howard, who commutes from Oak Park. “I really enjoy the control we have over the projects, the fact that we can plan the stage plays and the painting. Naming myself ‘Extraordinary Eater’ got a few chuckles from my group but it was a lot of fun. I hope to be here at least for the next few years.”