Seeing Durrell LeGrair’s students learn new rhythms, add hand motions and head movements to their footwork, you might get the idea you’re watching an exercise class.
Hearing them add inspiring words to their steps, then practice the sequences again and again, you realize that this is a serious rehearsal.
LeGrair’s standards are high. He demands sharp focus and works to motivate the group to move together with a military precision and an artistic passion.
“That’s the beauty and the agony of Sunday,” he reminds his step/cadence class just a few days before their public performance. “On Sunday, you’ve got one shot.”
Stepping is one of 16 different artistic disciplines taught at the weeklong Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop, YEPAW for short.
The brainchild of Leslie Parker Barnes, minister of music at Arlington Church of God, YEPAW began 20 years ago as an outreach to about 50 kids in the basement of her East Akron church. This year, more than 420 students participated in the workshop.
YEPAW Turns 20
While YEPAW targets inner city and African-American kids, young people from any group or background are welcome. Most come from neighborhoods in and around Akron, but this year there were delegates from as far away as Barbados and Grand Cayman.
Excellence, in arts and in life, is the ever-present goal at YEPAW. The instructors mirror that goal. Elec Simon, a five-year percussionist and tapper in Broadway’s “STOMP,” teaches drum line while he’s at home in Akron during a production break. Retired art professor Joyce Edwards and her daughter Julie Hogarth (whose button design was chosen for First Night 2010) teach fine arts.
The instructors’ list of credentials and accomplishments is long. “I’ve learned if you want to be great, you surround yourself with great people,” Barnes says.
Dance, mime, orchestra, drama, sign language, song writing, creative writing, photography, videography, extemporaneous speaking and newsletter are among the other classes at YEPAW.
of Standing Together
While YEPAW helps young people develop their individual strengths, everybody sings in the mass choir. “It helps them see the power of standing together,” Barnes says.
This year, the choir learned 11 new songs, including one in Japanese. On Wednesday, they recorded a CD together. On Sunday, July 26, they performed live at The University of Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena.
In addition to choir rehearsals and classes in their artistic major (twice daily) and secondary focus (once a day), YEPAW participants had anger management classes and times of renewal with guest performances by community groups.
On Thursday, students marched to the Haven of Rest, to sing and deliver undergarment donations, and to Children’s Hospital to perform musical selections and dance routines on the lawn.
A residential component of YEPAW was added in the late ‘90s to give teenagers the chance to envision themselves in college. It’s also a chance for YEPAW leaders to address other real life issues with the kids.
One year, after a guest performance by the L.I.O.N. Players (a local dance/drama troupe, whose themes deal with sexual choices), one of the participants told her leader that she was pregnant. “It’s real life, and we deal with it,” Barnes says.
“You are purposed (people) and you have to fight for it, every day,” Barnes tells the group during a difficult time at one of their final rehearsals. “So here’s the real deal: Somebody else will have to give up on you, but it won’t be me.”
Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, YEPAW 365 was created as a five-year program to develop a core of young minority leaders. Now in its third year, YEPAW 365 is giving 50 young people from more than 20 schools the opportunity to exercise year round the excellence they learned about at the workshop. With the help of personally assigned mentors and other community leaders who invest in their lives, YEPAW 365 students gain a bigger window on the world.
“So many people took time to help me when I was a young girl,” Barnes recalls. “YEPAW has become my way of saying ‘thank you.’”