“So, how was your day today? Can you name one good thing one of the other boys did that made you feel good? You know, this is about appreciation … A big part of appreciation is trust. And sometimes you have to appreciate yourself, too.”
Not exactly the way you’d expect a hip-hop dance class to start, with kids sitting in a circle talking earnestly to the teacher and each other.
But this class is different in a lot of ways.
It includes boys from SaintA’s Residential Treatment program, children who have been abused, neglected and, as a result, have serious emotional and behavioral issues. These are kids who frequently have a hard time focusing on anything for more than a few minutes.
Not so with teacher Cedric Gardner, a professional choreographer with credentials that would be the envy of many a dancer, including being on “So You Think You Can Dance,” getting a full scholarship to the “Debbie Allan Dance Academy,” and choreographing a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.
But, it’s not his fame the boys relate to. In fact, Cedric doesn’t even tell them about the many things he has done and the stars with whom he has worked.
It’s the way he treats them, how he talks to them, how he sincerely cares for them.
And that’s not hard for 31-year-old Cedric, because he has been in their shoes. When he was a child, he was abused by a baby sitter, lashed out at a teacher and ended up in a residential treatment facility. He knows what it’s like and how these kids really feel.
“I can relate to them, and this is about giving back, in the way I received it, in the form of art,” he said.
Cedric grew up in Milwaukee, where he was on the dance team at Washington High School and studied dance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But he went on to work in Los Angeles, and he has performed with celebrities including Neil Young, Gloria Estefan, Herbie Hancock, Sheila E and many others. He was in a music video with the Black-Eyed Peas and appeared in films including “The Dance Flick,” “Step Up 3D,” and he worked on the Nick Jr. TV show for children, “Yo Gabba Gabba.” He’s on a first-name basis with Debbie Allen, who hired him last year to be an assistant choreographer on an episode of the smash TV show “Empire” that she was directing.
But in 2013 he returned to Milwaukee with the goal of helping young people achieve their artistic dreams in a setting that he sees as having a “Midwest mindset of giving, caring and compassion.” He has set up dance classes and performances around the area, and he’d ultimately like to be an artistic director and hire kids he has mentored. Cedric said he has turned down opportunities in what he calls “the industry” to stay in Milwaukee.
Lucky for SaintA! His work with the Residential boys started when Gina Aiello, Residential support and program assistant, saw some of the boys dancing in a hallway and thought it would be great to bring in a professional to work with them. She heard about Cedric through a friend, and the collaboration has turned out to be a hit, she said.
The kids love it, and it helps regulate their behavior, she said. After classes, they are more focused and self-controlled. Abi Myers, SaintA’s Experiential Therapy specialist, called the dance classes “another vessel to give the boys hope.” She said the dancing builds their self-confidence and that Cedric, who has told the boys about his having been in a Residential facility, is a great role model.
“He shows them there is more to life after here,” she said.
Residential Youth Counselor Bruce Christianson, who like Abi, participates in the lessons along with the boys, called the dancing “one of the most trauma informed therapies we have here.”
He also lauded how Cedric, at each class, teaches things to the boys and creates relationships that help to mitigate the trauma they have experienced.
“He talks to the kids one on one and tells them, ‘You know you’re awesome!’ His technique is really good. He has a connection with the kids, and he complements our work.”
Bruce related a story about one of the very youngest boys, who had problems waking up really early in the morning with a lot of disruptive high energy. Then in dance class, Cedric did an exercise in which the boys modeled different body postures, expressions and tones of voice in greeting examples of different people, such as a familiar, loved person versus a stranger. The theme was it is up to a person to choose what he puts out in the world, that the attitude he projects is a choice that affects his behavior.
“The next day, I came in and he (the boy) was up, but regulated,” Bruce said. “‘Hey, Bruce,’ he said to me, ‘I tried it out. I chose my behavior!’ It was like he had an epiphany.”
That kind of example is music to Cedric’s ears.
“I want to help the kids get to their root problems through art,” he said. “If I’m going to be here, it has to be therapeutic, because that’s what dance was to me.”
Cedric said he wants not to just acknowledge that a child has a problem, but rather to be part of the solution.
And he loves seeing the kids get more proficient with their dancing. He and the Residential staff hope ultimately to be able to put on a recital of some kind.
“It brings me great joy seeing them get better and better. But more important is them getting the confidence they need to grow.”