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Let All the Children Boogie: The Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival at the Music Center

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 Aerial View of Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival Synchronized Student Dance Performance at the Music Center Plaza, 2016. |  Photo: Courtesy of the Music Center

On February 28, March 1 and March 2 of this year, more than 18,000 fifth graders from throughout Los Angeles County will participate in the 47th annual Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival, an event that fills the Music Center plaza in Downtown Los Angeles with thousands of children dancing in synch each day. Begun in 1970 as part of the Music Center’s arts education programming, the Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival is California’s longest continuing free arts education initiative and, at a time when many schools receive little arts education funding, it has introduced more than 845,000 young L.A. students to the magic and inspiration of the performing arts.  

The Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival is presented by the Blue Ribbon, a group of almost 500 women who champion the arts, founded by Dorothy Chandler in 1968 to give students access to top-quality performing arts from a young age. Chandler, known to friends as “Buffy,” was married to Norman Chandler, who became publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1945. She is best known for the monumental efforts she made to promote the performing arts in Los Angeles. As well as helping to preserve the Hollywood Bowl in 1950, she also spearheaded efforts for 10 years to build a performing arts center in Los Angeles and a permanent home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (until it moved to Walt Disney Hall in 2003). Her legacy is preserved at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center and also in the work of the Blue Ribbon, which works with continued dedication to bring the performing arts to all members of the local community. With their children’s festival, now in its 47th year, the organization brings music and dance from diverse cultural backgrounds to children from all over the county. 

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Fifth-graders from Chatsworth performing synchronized dance at the Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival, 2016. |  Photo: Courtesy of the Music Center

Every year, the Music Center and the Blue Ribbon collaborate to select world-class artists to perform for the students as part of the festival, and schools apply to take part. About 250 fifth-grade classes are chosen annually to participate on one of the three days, and each class receives a package to prepare them for the festival, including standards-based curriculum materials, background on the guest artists, classroom activities and choreography to practice in advance. On the day of the their visit, the classes are bused in to the Music Center, where they are treated to a special performance in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and then assembled in the Music Center plaza for their huge, synchronized dance performance. Following the performance, each participating student receives a keepsake book, "A Journey Through the Music Center," courtesy of Blue Ribbon member Maxine Dunitz. For some children, this is their first exposure to a live performing arts event.

Last year, thousands of children were treated to a performance by Black Violin, a hip-hop duo from Florida who play violin and viola and blend classical music and hip-hop rhythms and beats. They performed at the Pavilion with Rennie Harris RHAW (Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring Works), a dance company that focuses on youth and urban culture. Lynette Elmassion, a then fifth-grader from Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake, which participated in the 2016 Children’s Festival, was very excited by the presentation.

“I had never seen that kind of performance before,” she explained. “Then we went outside and did a dance we’d practiced for many weeks. I liked being able to dance with all the other schools. I felt inspired because now I like to come up with my own dance moves.” Her classmate Theo Marsh agreed. “I really enjoyed learning the hip-hop dance moves and dancing outside with everybody.”

Opportunities to watch the performing arts and learn dance styles from professional instructors are rare in public schools. In 2007-2008, nationwide cuts in arts education caused many public schools to close down or minimize their art programs, sacrificing music, dance, theater and the visual arts to focus on subjects that are part of standardized testing. Although funding to school districts in the Los Angeles area has increased over the last decade and arts education is being revitalized across the county, many schools have yet to rebuild their visual and performing arts programs. Consequently, thousands of public school children throughout the region still receive minimal arts education, or none at all, and non-profits like the Blue Ribbon have played a critical role in providing this education to these students.

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Alvin II in Alvin Ailey’s "Revelations." |  Photo: Eduardo Patino, NYC

This year, the education and inspiration will come from Alvin Ailey's renowned dance company, Ailey II. Founded in 1974 by the late internationally renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey, Ailey II merges the spirit and energy of the country’s best young dance talent with the passion and creativity of today’s most outstanding emerging choreographers. Ailey was a pioneer of programs promoting arts in education, particularly those that benefited underserved communities, so the company is an ideal partner for the Blue Ribbon’s Children’s Festival. Students have been preparing for the 2017 festival by exploring the evolution of the spiritual, including its roots in slavery and its connection to various art forms: jazz, blues, modern rock, classical, the American musical and dance. After the performance and a rehearsal on the Plaza, students will perform a dance inspired by the "Rocka My Soul" finale section of Alvin Ailey masterpiece "Revelations."

“We are proud to bring the experience of Ailey II to so many Los Angeles students this year,” said Blue Ribbon president Jill Baldauf. “Alvin Ailey was an American cultural pioneer and dance genius with an absolute passion to bring the vibrancy of modern dance to as many people as possible. The Blue Ribbon shares that passion, and we are delighted to share this experience with the children of Los Angeles. It’s our hope that these children will be inspired to return to the Music Center with their families to experience the myriad of performing arts opportunities offered here.”

Rachel Moore, president and CEO of the Music Center, echoes her enthusiasm. “The Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival is a shining example of the Music Center’s long-standing arts education programs,” she says proudly, “and a testament to how the arts can inspire and transform the lives of young people.”   

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Fifth-graders from Westchester performing synchronized dance at the Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival, 2016. |  Photo: Courtesy of the Music Center

Top image: Charley Gallay/Getty Images


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