Dancer Chloe Arnold attributes her professional success to her early exposure to arts education. At age six, she began taking dance lessons at a studio in a Washington, D.C. strip mall. It wasn't a start that led anyone to predict that she'd one day earn an Emmy nod for choreography or a bachelor's degree from an Ivy League university. Arnold, however, has managed to do both. She is now paying it forward — using her nonprofit, the Chloe and Maud Foundation, to expose underprivileged youth to the arts.
Arnold credits dance with saving her life, for it kept her emotionally afloat as she wrestled with her parents' divorce, grew up in an economically-disadvantaged community and faced other challenges as a kid in the 1980s and '90s.
"I think that the arts are this incredible common denominator between people," she said. "It connects people in a very spiritual and authentic way that breaks down the things that are very hard for people to process, or to feel, or to say, or to do. It magically transforms your self worth. When you're in an inner city, and you're surrounded by so much violence and adversity, you need something that allows you to escape that reality, to imagine something more, feel something different and be put into an environment that is very safe."
For Arnold, dance was the vehicle that allowed her to transcend her circumstances, but her arts education didn't end with that genre. At the Round House Theatre and the DC Youth Orchestra at Coolidge High School, she received violin and clarinet lessons. She also took part in a school play as a student at Brookhaven Elementary School. Dance, though, was her primary passion, so her mother sought out programs that would allow her to refine her skills and grow as a performer. Eventually, she auditioned for a government-funded program that allowed her to tap dance under the tutelage of legends such as Gregory Hines, the Nicholas Brothers and Dianne Walker. That experience convinced her that she wanted to be a professional dancer.
When Arnold was 16, she also found it life-changing to audition for a play overseen by Debbie Allen, the famed choreographer, actress, producer and director. The celebrity became a mentor to her, encouraging Arnold to not only take dance seriously but also to pursue higher education and plan for her future. Allen encouraged her to become a multifaceted artist capable of excelling in different forms of dance as well as in writing, producing and directing.
"It was just so powerful for me to have her in my life," Arnold said. "I pray everybody gets a mentor who cares about them in a way that just elevates their life so that they know their worth and their value; that's what she did for me."
Arnold believes Allen gave her the self-confidence to study film at Columbia University. She received offers of admission from Harvard, Princeton and Yale as well. She said that the discipline required to succeed as an artist gave her the training needed to excel as a scholar. Her arts education also inspired her to start Syncopated Ladies, one of the rare all-female tap-dancing troupes. Through the Chloe and Maud Foundation, named after her and her sister, Arnold hopes to inspire the young people she encounters to find and nourish their inner calling.
Since its inception in 2013, the foundation has prioritized outreach to some of Los Angeles' most underserved schools. Arnold has also visited juvenile detention centers where the girls have experienced extreme trauma. During one trip to such a center (shortly before the coronavirus lockdowns began), Arnold found that the residents weren't interested in listening to her story. Then, one of the girls asked her to dance. Arnold agreed, and a friend who'd accompanied her sang along to the choreography. The performance allowed Arnold to finally break through to the room full of troubled girls.
"We learned about all of their lives, in depth," Arnold recalled. "And they danced with us and they sang with us. It became this magical moment, and we would have never ever been able to break that ice if we hadn't had a language of dance. When English was no longer serving us, there was something greater, which was movement, and the arts, and communication, and feeling and a message, and it was just a reminder to me of how effective, incredible the arts are and how necessary, because, again, the things that so many kids are dealing with are so intense that words are maybe too overwhelming to find."
Arnold said that dance can change children's lives, whether or not they excel as performers. This is because dance is not about perfection, she explained, but connection. For more than a year, though, the coronavirus has prevented children from accessing arts education in person. Arnold said the response to the pandemic has often neglected children's emotional and psychological needs, and as schools reopen nationally, they'll need the arts even more than they did before the COVID-19 shutdown. Although some children have attended arts classes online, Arnold said that it is not the same, as many youth have Internet connectivity problems, lack the space to dance in their homes, or simply aren't as likely to participate in virtual classes.
"We've got a lot of healing to do," she said. "We need to be able to put [children] into arts programming to reconnect, to feel again what it is to be human, which is to be around other people and to connect, socialize. The arts are going to be one of the greatest forms of healing, coming out of the time where so many inner-city kids just didn't have access to the programming they had in school. If we want to see less violence, if we want to see more love, if we want to see children excelling, we have to teach them the arts in a way that will give them a greater sense of self-love and self-confidence."