This story is part of Made in Philly, a series about young residents shaping local communities.
The wooden floorboards of the old Community Education Center in University Center creaked under the 10 pairs of feet that stomped on it early on a Saturday morning, though that sound would later be drowned out by ’90s music and laughter.
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Eventually Shanel Edwards, 23, lead dance instructor, called out over the teenage girls’ chatter. “I love enthusiasm, but focus is also an energy,” she reminded them.
The girls returned to concentrating on their moves to Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat," snapping their fingers as they counted down to the chorus.
The routine was a warm-up for their second hour of class that afternoon, except that second hour of their session was not dance-related at all — they were working up a sweat for an hour of computer coding.
“Coding is repetition, and dancing is also repetition,” said Franklyn Athias, senior vice president of IP services at Comcast Cable and the coding instructor at danceLogic. “Yes, one is exercise, but you got to learn the routine. It’s the same thing with coding, you still got to learn the routine."
“It also wakes them up by the time they come to me,” he added.
danceLogic is a program of the West Park Cultural Center, a nonprofit founded by Betty Lindley in 2001 to provide affordable activities for kids over the summer and after school, particularly in her West Philadelphia neighborhood. The class teaches one hour of dancing followed by an hour of coding each week in an effort to promote S.T.E.M. learning, or, as Lindley refers to it, S.T.E.A.M. — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.
“It’s providing them with new ways of thinking, just by the fact that they have to think about what they're learning and doing coding and how that inspires what they do, as far as creating their own original choreography,” Lindley said. “It does open up career possibilities, because coding can be very lucrative, and they're in industries that are looking to have more females.”
The idea behind danceLogic came to Lindley after she read an article about a teacher in New York who brought her background of technology and dance together. Lindley knew Athias spent his Saturday mornings teaching free coding classes at the Second Antioch Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, and she approached him about partnering for danceLogic.
“I just thought there had to be a way to bring what we were doing with the arts with the coding, how could we do that?” Lindley said. “He was having trouble getting youth to come to the [coding] classes. And coding is not something that especially girls think about doing, and girls of color in particular.”
According to the latest numbers from the Pew research center, the number of women in computer-related occupations decreased from 32 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2017. The Pew report found that black and Hispanic people are underrepresented in the STEM workforce, making up only 9 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
“It’s hard to find women in code right now,” Athias said. “So, my view is if you can train them younger, we can get them into this program and one day either become programmers or something in the technology field. Because the opportunity is ripe.”
Annie Fortenberry, 25, is one of two dance instructors for the program. She believes dance and code are inherently connected through pattern, rhythm, and sequence. She said the most rewarding part about the program is seeing how each girl in the class plays to her strengths in order to help the rest of the group.
“I just hope that whether the students continue dancing or continue coding, they see how those kinds of structures will help them in every part of their life,” Fortenberry said.
Though many of the girls naturally loved to dance and gradually grew to appreciate code, 14-year-old Nailah Shabazz was more drawn to the coding aspect of the program. Shabazz is home-schooled, so joining a program that involves teamwork is an additional advantage and challenge, along with learning to be steady on her feet while dancing.
“I know it's going to help me when I get older,” Shabazz said. “And when I try to, I guess navigate the world as an adult. So I guess I'm kind of building the foundation for me later on in life.”
Athias teaches Swift, one of Apple’s programming languages, and said it’s no different from what somebody would learn at a university or an advanced high school. After their dance lesson, the girls sit at a long table, iPads and snacks in hand, following instructions from Athias, who gives them code to input and asks them to tell him their results.
Lauryn Dorsett, 14, said she didn’t know what coding was until she joined danceLogic.
“It's sort of intimidating, looking at the stuff that it is on the sheet of paper that you have to put into programming,” Dorsett said.
Shanel Edwards, 23, lead dance instructor, said that frustration is her favorite part of the job. She enjoys helping the girls work through any issues they may have with a move or step, and the lesson of problem-solving that goes with it.
“Black girls can do coding, and they can do dance,” she said about the program. “And they can even figure out how to do both at the same time.”
The spring session runs from January to June, when the girls will perform their final choreographed dance at the West Park Arts Fest. Lindley said the class is $50, but the fee is waived for anyone who cannot afford it.
“I really do feel like it’s empowered me,” Dorsett said. “I was sort of like a shy girl. I didn’t really dance much. So, when I started dancing more … it helped me a lot more to, like, break out of my shell and start going places with it. Basically, it helped me build who I am.”