Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.
In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"
After returning home, Bailes spent the summer before college conducting emergent literacy research in Cincinnati alongside a physician who believed that literacy at a young age could improve children's futures. Inspired by the experience, she founded Ballet & Books shortly afterwards in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located. She spent the spring of her freshman year planning her first class and securing community support, and launched the program later that fall.
Ballet & Books targets young students between the ages of 3 and 9 years old; Bailes says research shows that if students are behind in academics by third grade, they will likely stay behind. "The programs are free," she says, "and we aim to provide for children who typically wouldn't have access to dance and literacy mentorship." Ballet & Books also provides free dancewear and snacks. Bailes recruits university and high school students as volunteers to lead the programs. "We pride ourselves on serving a diverse community of families and coming from diverse backgrounds ourselves," she says. Volunteers receive bias training from Cornell staff and learn how to use dialogic reading to engage children from the local public library. Students, split into two age groups, participate in the semester-long program once a week, culminating in a final show on a real stage at Cornell. Children between ages 6 and 9 ("Sprouts") are taught a 45-minute dance class, followed by one-on-one reading and literacy activities with a mentor. Those ages 3 to 5 years old ("Seeds") receive a one-hour class that integrates dance and literacy. For instance, the teacher might read a book like Giraffes Can't Dance while the children tango like the lions and cha-cha with chimpanzees; or they might dress up and perform to Rainbow Fish.
Running a non-profit while going to college may sound daunting, but Bailes finds that her busy schedule has actually helped her excel. "I have meaning in my life and something I think is important," she says, "so this has motivated me to study harder and more effectively and efficiently." She's even hosting virtual mini-sessions now because schools are closed due to COVID-19. Ballet & Books is currently under a formative evaluation to illustrate the program's impacts. But anecdotally, Bailes sees that it's working. "Some kids get excited about picking up books for the first time," she says. Other children develop confidence, with once-shy participants shining onstage in the final performance. Ballet & Books has also expanded beyond Ithaca, to chapters in Delray Beach, Florida, and Union City, New Jersey, with more chapters in the works. Bailes hopes to see Ballet & Books continue to expand nationally to serve more children across the U.S.