Rebuilding New Orleans through dance

When Katrina hit New Orleans seven years ago, everyone wanted to help. Some sent money. Those who could went there for a time.

But it was difficult to provide the ongoing assistance that was obviously needed without moving there or making continuous donations to large benefit organizations, which, despite the good they do, may not reach truly worthy projects one might personally value.

This is the story of a courageous New Orleans dance teacher fighting back after losing her home and the studio she taught at-risk youth in for 20 years, and me: A San Francisco woman blessed with an opportunity to help her.

Janet Andrews is a descendent of the free people of color and a walking history book of Tremé, where she was raised. In 2006, not quite a year after Katrina, I traveled to Louisiana with a tour of India Jazz Suites, the hit collaboration between Kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das and Emmy Award-winning tap star Jason Samuels Smith, to assist with logistics.

During outreach in New Orleans, Chitresh and Jason visited Janet’s tap classes to do master classes with kids. During breaks, I heard of the struggles Janet faced in her life and her work to help the most at-risk kids facing enormous odds in Katrina’s aftermath.

It was an overwhelming story of personal loss, a passion for the power of dance to heal, and an unending drive to help kids cope and “dance their blues away.”

Knowing how the arts can transform kids from my own work in theater and dance, I appreciated Janet’s passion. I also knew I had been given an opportunity to help New Orleans kids by helping Janet do her incredible work.

I offered my grant writing skills to help with applications for Janet’s newly applied-for nonprofit, the New Orleans Dance Collective.

Janet’s story also told of an unending search for enough usable space for NODC’s program to operate year-round during critical after-school and summer hours when the youth were most vulnerable to violence and drugs.

Katrina’s devastation was so complete that, even after seven years, there is simply no usable studio space. Rental spaces needed $70,000 or more of rehab work for one studio with no guarantee of longevity.

Janet was able to get summer space at Dillard University for a four-week program which has been very successful but constrained by the limited size of the space. There is no dance space that would allow for expansion to a year-round program.

After-school activities, Janet managed to organize in the Recovery School District that were curtailed by budget cuts. It became clear that the only way to create a home for the program and help a greater number of youth was to find property and build something from the ground up.

In 2011, I nominated Janet for an Angel Award from the Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation. She won one of the awards.

Janet decided to use the $20,000 Angel Award grant as seed money for a building and found some property in an accessible location. Tulane City Center came on board and produced a wonderful design for the facility.

Now money must be raised to complete the building, which will benefit not only NODC, but other New Orleans arts providers in similar straits.

New Orleans is such an incredible place, with so much deep history and culture, and the people are amazing. Visitors see that Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras go on unabated and think New Orleans is doing okay again. But they don’t see the lack of facilities and daily challenges its residents face.

Seven years have passed since Katrina, but in many places infrastructure still approaches Third World.

It took Janet almost six years to rebuild her house and move back in. For three years after the storm, she lived in a dorm at Tulane and got a Masters degree in social work so she could create a dance program that addressed the needs of youth in crisis.

Working entirely as a volunteer and often coming out of pocket to help kids buy dance shoes so they could participate, she has consistently turned her own adversity around to be there for underprivileged New Orleans youth.

Janet has been able to get nominal grants from local New Orleans sources to help support her great work. But because of NODC’s small size, she says large funders have passed it over:

“It’s a classic catch-22, they won’t fund a small organization, but the organization can’t grow without space, and the funding to obtain it.”

That’s where you — and I — come in.

Janet needs basic grassroots financial support to complete the dance center and help rebuild the confidence of a community.

I know there are lots of people all over the country who would love to help too, they just need to know how to do it.

So I want to let people know of the continuing need Katrina left in her wake, the amazing work Janet and NODC are doing, and how people can be a real part of helping at-risk kids in post-Katrina New Orleans.

While supporting a single organization creates a wonderful connection, you get the satisfaction of seeing the ongoing results of your contributions.

NODC is a 501 (c)(3) organization, so all donations are tax deductible. Janet’s website is www.noladance.org. Please help today. Thank you.


Eddie Shine is a San Francisco resident, grandmother, and legal administrator who loves kids and dance (and thinks both SF and NOLA are special places).