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Ballet & Books Takes on the Reading Gap

One dancer shows off her handstand. Photo by Danielle Lee
One dancer shows off her handstand. Photo by Danielle Lee

Every Saturday at the Ithaca Southside Community Center, young girls, ages six to nine, lace up their ballet shoes in the gymnasium. After 45 minutes of learning how to leap and sashay, dancers head around the corner to the reading room, grab apple slices and pretzels sticks, then partner up with their mentor, a student from either Ithaca College, Cornell University, Lehman Alternative Community School, or Ithaca High School, to read a book.

Talia Bailes, a junior at Cornell University and the founder of Ballet & Books, started the organization after conducting research with a physician about the impact of reading on young minds. Bailes found that it is crucial for children to be exposed to books by the time they reach kindergarten.

“There is this term called the ‘30-million-word gap’ which means that kids who are raised in low-resource backgrounds hear 30-million fewer words by the time they hit kindergarten compared to their more affluent peers,” Bailes said.

Ballet & Books, launched in fall 2017, merges dance and literacy to make learning fun for young girls in the Ithaca community. The organization also works to build confidence by providing a mentor who can help guide them through their reading and dancing.

“It’s really exciting to see them get excited about books and future college, or the fact that there’s something bigger out there,” Bailes said.

Bailes and her team gain dancers by advertising on Facebook, handing out fliers, contacting local schools and head-start programs, and by word-of-mouth from parents of the program. When searching for mentors, her marketing team also reaches out to dance groups at local colleges and high schools, through the National Honor Society and other community organizations. Currently, the organization has fifteen dancers in the six-to nine-year-old class and twenty mentors.

A mentor helps her mentee to read "Ballerino Nate."
A mentor helps her mentee to read “Ballerino Nate.” Photo by Danielle Lee

Sherell Farmer, a freshman at Cornell University and first-year mentor at Ballet & Books, joined the organization after hearing about its goal to raise literacy rates in the community through dance.

“The fact that we’re directly in the community, we can see a tangible impact, we can see the change in the kids,” Farmer said. “We can see what the community needs and adjust the program accordingly.”

Ballet & Books recently received a grant from the Cornell Public Service Center and Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library to expand the program to kids between the ages three and five. In the younger program, literacy and dance are combined within an hour period. Students learn to follow instructions in song lyrics, act out letters through movements, and clap rhythms.

The dancers, ranging from three to five, are listening to instructions in the song.
The dancers, ranging from three to five, are listening to instructions in the song. Photo by Danielle Lee

“Young girls love to read, but there is also this hesitation behind reading like it is work sometimes,” Bailes said. “But if you make it fun, then people want to learn and you encourage them beyond just reading for school.”

Just like the young girls who are combining dance with reading, Becca Perini, a senior at Ithaca College and first-year mentor, is also rediscovering her love for books every Saturday.

“I was dyslexic growing up, so reading was never my strong suit,” Perini said. “So I thought maybe combining my love for dance and my newfound love for books would not only foster a more encouraging environment for myself to keep reading but also inspire younger children,” Perini said.

Mentors and their dancers read a book together after 45 minutes of dancing.
Mentors and their dancers read a book together after 45 minutes of dancing. Photo by Danielle Lee

At the end of the year, the young dancers in the Ballet & Books program have the opportunity to perform at Bailey Hall on Cornell University’s campus.

“It is so fun to watch and it makes me so proud and so excited about what Ballet & Books can do,” Bailes said.

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