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UMKC Spotlight: How UMKC alumni and students are giving back to KC urban youth through KCFAA’s Summer Ailey Camp

Photo: Collage of UMKC Alumni’s Kennedy Banks (Top left); Miyesha McGriff (Top right); Marcus Johnson (Bottom left); Yvette Norris (Bottom right)

The posthumous legacy of legendary choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey still reverberates through the arts in Kansas City.

Founded in 1984 and located in the historic Jazz District on 18th and Vine, The Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey has been foundational in fulfilling Ailey’s deferred dreams after his sudden death to AIDS-related illness in 1989.

The most influential program in KCFAA’s outreach to urban youth in the metro is arguably the Ailey Camp, which was founded here in the summer of 1989 at the site of his last public appearance.

Partnering with both the KCMO and KCK public school districts, Ailey Camp is a free intensive five-week dance and life-skills program for underprivileged middle school students. 

It has touched the lives of 1.2 million people across communities, while expanding to nine other prominent cities such as Miami, Baltimore and Seattle.

Undoubtedly, the Ailey Camp in Kansas City is the leader of the pack, which would not be possible without the contributions of UMKC students and alumni.

Five of the camp’s 12 staff members are UMKC alumni who are dedicated to teaching and inspiring the next generation through dance and their leadership skills. 

The leader and matriarch of the Kansas City camp is social worker and camp counselor Yvette Norris. She graduated from UMKC in 1995 and has been with the program for 25 years.

“Being able to give back to these kids and watch their transformation over the years is one of my greatest life achievements,” Norris said. “That would not be possible without the education I received at UMKC.”

Given that most of these children come from the urban core, they are often exposed to socioeconomic childhood traumas, such as food insecurity and domestic violence. Teaching kids healthy coping skills like conflict resolution is critical in their development into adulthood. 

Also on staff is Miyesha McGriff, an elegant and skillful professional ballet dancer and instructor, who received training at The Ailey School and Kansas City Ballet. 

A child from the metro who graduated from UMKC’s Conservatory Dance program in 2011, she is now a leading artist for the Collage Dance Collective of Memphis, TN, and an Ailey Camp instructor for the last six years. 

McGriff’s alma mater, UMKC’s Conservatory, is ranked the 24th best program of its kind in the world, per the Hollywood Reporter.

Similarly, Collage Dance Collective has received rave reviews and awards for its contributions to contemporary American dance and is a part of an impressive repertoire of Black-led dance companies in the United States. 

“One word to encapsulate the Ailey Camp experience for the kids and as an instructor is growth,” McGriff said. “Observing these kids’ progression as they adapt to me while I learn how best to teach them is remarkable.”

Another alum whose contributions are vital to Ailey Camp’s success is jazz and ballet instructor Kennedy Banks. She graduated in the spring of 2021 with a degree in dance performance and choreography from UMKC’s Conservatory.

The 22-year-old Chicago native began studying dance in middle school, and has worked for the camp since her freshman year at UMKC. She credits the program and its instructors for the skills and work ethic she hopes to instill in her students every year. 

“The conservatory prepared me for this experience a lot,” Kennedy said. “They showed me how to lead by example, right attention and extract the strict focus needed to be a professional dancer and instructor.”

Lastly, there is talented and passionate UMKC junior Marcus Johnson, a Windy City native and instructor of modern dance at the camp.

“Everything I learn at the university, I literally teach to my students,” Johnson said. “The warm-up I learned from Gary Abbott is the exact routine I teach to my students. Me going to class every day and soaking up all the knowledge the program is teaching me is immediately given back to these students.”

Giving back to historically marginalized and underprivileged communities of Kansas City is central to UMKC’s mission. While Ailey’s relationship to the university before his passing 31 years ago is unknown, it is clear that UMKC alumni are doing justice to his impact in the Kansas City community. 

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