• Tue. Oct 19th, 2021

How this student uses her ballet training to help children learn to read

ByKaren B. Brown

Mar 29, 2020

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a global and public health science student at Cornell University, now runs a successful nonprofit called Ballet & Books, which combines dance 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 year off and traveled to Ecuador with the Global Citizen Year organization to teach English to over 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up in a dance school outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their native dances. “Culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music than in literacy,” she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way children could develop and grow socially through dance. “It got me thinking, what if dance could be really integrated into our approach to education? ”

Charlotte Jones, Courtesy Ballet & Books

After returning home, Bailes spent the summer before college researching emerging literacy in Cincinnati alongside a doctor who believed literacy at a young age could improve children’s futures. . Inspired by the experience, she founded Ballet & Books soon after in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located. She spent the spring of her freshman year planning her first class and building community support, and launched the program later this fall.

Ballet & Books targets young students aged 3 to 9; Bailes says research shows that if students are late in their studies in third year, they likely will. “The programs are free,” she says, “and we aim to provide children who would not typically have access to dance and literacy mentorship. Ballet & Books also offers dance wear and free snacks. Bailes recruits university and high school students as volunteers to run the programs. “We are proud to serve a diverse community of families and to come from diverse backgrounds ourselves,” she says. Volunteers receive bias training from Cornell staff and learn to use dialogic reading to engage children at the local public library.

Bailes, in a blue T-shit and black leggings, jumps high in the air with his arms raised and cables pointed.  To her left, a group of little girls dressed in blue leotards and pink tights try to copy her.

Bailes directs his young charges during a stage performance.

Courtesy ballet and books

Students, divided 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 aged 6 to 9 (“Sprouts”) take a 45-minute dance class, followed by individual reading and literacy activities with a mentor. Those aged 3 to 5 (“Seeds”) receive a one-hour class that integrates dance and literacy. For example, the teacher can read a book like Giraffes can’t dance while the children tango like the lions and cha-cha with the chimpanzees; or they could dress and play for Rainbow fish.

Running a nonprofit while going to college can seem daunting, but Bailes finds that her busy schedule has actually helped her excel. “I have meaning in my life and something that I think is important,” she says, “so that motivated me to study harder and more effectively and efficiently”. She is even running virtual mini-sessions now as schools are closed due to COVID-19.

A classroom full of school children and young adult volunteers pose and smile for the camera.  Some hold the Firebird book while others hold paper cut hearts or certificates.

Bailes and other Ballet & Books volunteers pose with their latest book project, Misty Copeland’s Bird of Fire.

Courtesy ballet and books

Ballet & Books is currently undergoing a formative evaluation to illustrate the program implications. But for the record, Bailes sees that it works. “Some kids are excited to pick up books for the first time,” she says. Other children develop their self-confidence, with once shy participants who shine on stage in the final performance. Ballet & Books has also expanded beyond Ithaca, with chapters in Delray Beach, Florida, and Union City, New Jersey, with other chapters in the works. Bailes hopes to see Ballet & Books continue to grow nationwide to serve more children across the United States.


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