When Concord High School graduate Diamond Burdine stares at himself in the room full of mirrors where he spends hours each week, he sees an Indiana University South Bend student with ambitions of becoming a professional dancer. But he saw something very different five years ago.
Back then — before he joined Concord's Best Dance Crew — he saw a troubled teen who bounced among more than a dozen foster homes. He saw someone who'd just been arrested. He saw someone who would end up in jail.
He saw a lot of things, but he didn't see hope.
But now he’s taking home top honors from the Tremaine Dance Competition with the school's dance team and auditioning for “America's Got Talent” with the dance crew. He doesn’t have time to make trouble.
"I was a foster kid. I really didn't care about anyone else's feelings, I didn't care about the world," Burdine said. "Dance sent me to a whole different world."
Rich Matteson came on as the CHS resource officer about seven years ago, and very early in his time there he recognized the at-risk students and the challenges they were facing: peer pressure to join gangs or do drugs for the guys, teen pregnancy and self-esteem issues for the girls.
But he noticed something else. Many of the kids notorious for making trouble were also the ones doing flips off bleachers and chairs, or dancing in the bathrooms and hallways during lunch.
They were not the typical athletes, not like the football players, wrestlers or baseball players. They showed promise as dancers. That was the start of Concord’s Best Dance Crew.
“The number of students ending up in jail and following in the wrong footsteps of parents, it’s astronomical,” Matteson said. “We have to find a way of pointing these kids in a different direction and giving them a way out.”
Matteson recruited a handful of at-risk kids and gave them a set of strict stipulations: Show up every day after school for practice, keep grades up and racking up discipline referrals means dismissal from the team. The after-school practices were very intentional, Matteson said.
“Most kids, especially young men and ladies in their position, they go home to an empty house or to a house where things aren’t going so well,” he said. “They turn to the street, running the streets all hours of the night. Getting arrested or involved in gang activity. But the dancers are here late at night; they don’t have that opportunity.”
He teamed up with Stephanie Pairitz, who came to Concord to lead the existing dance program in 2009. Pairitz, who also acts as a coach, a mentor and a mom, said the dancers feel at home in their corner of the high school.
They know they have an adult to talk to if they’re having a hard time or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich waiting for them if their cupboards are bare. For the original guys on Concord’s Best Dance Crew, that has made all the difference.
“If Concord’s Best Dance Crew had never started, I would probably be in jail. Probably wouldn’t have graduated high school, to be honest,” Burdine said. “As soon as I joined, I learned from a lot of people that, hey, that’s not the way to go.”
‘A SOUL THING’
Burdine is just one of the success stories from Concord’s dance program.
There’s also David Garcia, a junior, who started hanging out with so-called friends who were getting involved with gangs, drugs and alcohol. But then he joined the dance crew.
“Ever since that, my life has changed,” he said. “These are the only people I hang out with. We have this bond. I feel like it’s unbreakable.”
And there is Shimmy Sar, a senior who grew a passion for dancing by watching Michael Jackson videos.
“I was conceited and thought I was better than everyone here,” he said. “I don’t like to ask for help, but I made a new family.”
The success goes beyond the anecdotal evidence, Pairitz said. Every student who has committed to Concord’s Best Dance Crew has graduated from high school.
That’s a 100 percent graduation rate, compared to the school’s rate of 87.5 percent. So, why has dance proven so successful at keeping kids in school?
“Arts touch human beings in a way that nothing else can,” Pairitz said. “It touches our spirits. It’s a soul thing.”
She said it gives students an outlet to express themselves and provides a distraction from their personal battles.
One dancer lost her home and all her belongings in a fire her freshman year. Another was embroiled in a legal battle with her stepfather. Both said dance practice was a welcome escape from the confusion in their lives.
The dance program is also successful because students get to act cool and listen to popular music, Pairitz said, but they’re not doing stupid things like stealing or getting in fights.
“It fulfills that desire to go outside of your normal self and to live it,” she said.
And, as insignificant as they might seem, it has to do with the mirrors that line three walls in the dance studio. They encourage introspection, Pairitz said.
"It pushes you to be calm and incredibly aware of who you are and who you want to be," she said. "it's about taking up space, not trying to be invisible."
‘AN AWARENESS THEY CAN DO ANYTHING’
Pairitz trained as a professional dancer and spent time performing on national and international stages.
She wants to give her students that same opportunity. “I knew that anything I really put my focus on I can really achieve,” she said. “That’s the most powerful thing to give to the next generation, is an awareness they can do anything.”
With the financial support of the Elkhart community and scholarships from Tremaine, Pairitz took the team to regional and national competitions, where they challenged dancers from professional schools and studios.