At sunset in Northern Liberties last Friday, the echo of unique music drew passersby to Liberty Lands Park.
There, they discovered a group of youngsters performing an improvisational dance to music inspired by African drumbeats, in an event held as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
But the 12 dancers weren’t just the youngest performers in the festival — they also choreographed the piece and wrote the music accompanying it themselves, through the NLArts — Northern Liberties Arts — summer camp program. The camp provides art programs to children at weekend and summer workshops taught by local artists.
Performer Maya, 10, proudly said that she had created part of the choreography – dipping down with her hands out to the ground and make a scooping gesture upwards to demonstrate.
“Running up and down the park was hard,” Maya admitted, but overall she and her younger sister, Lili, who both performed, said they had a fun time.
“Even if it was just a one night thing, it’s cool they got to be part of the festival,” said Maya and Lili’s dad, Craig Peterson, himself the former director of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Choreographer Christina Gesualdi, a dancer in residence at the Mascher Space Co-op, worked with the kids to create this performance.
“We really played a lot with different ideas. They wanted it to be specific to the park out here, and to be close to the audience. It was really just take the music and run with it, and have fun,” she said.
According to Kristin McKeown, another parent of kids who performed in the program, NLArts is unique in that it invites kids participating in the program to create their own projects.
“They love being able to be so creative,” McKeown said of her two children, who have participated in NLArts for three summers. “They’re part of creating it. It’s a camp where they have a voice.”
NLArts has offered their end-of-summer arts camp, as well as monthly arts workshops for kids on First Fridays, since 2007, according to director Monika Kreidie. She said the program was started due to the lack of arts programs for kids in the Northern Liberties area.
“We were basically just a group of moms that started it,” Kreidie said.
Kreidie and the approximately 100 other families who had been supportive of an arts program in NoLibs decided to start up the NLArts program.
Cyndie Reid, whose daughter performed in Friday’s dance, agreed that there weren’t many other options in the neighborhood for this type of art class.
“There’s a lot of music programs, but not so much in the performing arts aspect,” Reid said. “My daughter loves music and dance. It’s just so nice to see her get up there and want to be in a performance in front of everybody.”
NLArts originally held its arts programming at the Crane Arts Center, and then at the Angler Movements Arts Center. In recent years it has moved to the Northern Liberties Community Center, which gives the program more flexibility, Kreidie said. The group sometimes coordinates programs with the Northern Liberties Recreation Center next door.
The three-week summer NLArts program, which takes place annually in August, consists of three workshops each in the morning and afternoon every weekday. In the first week, kids put together a dance or theatrical performance, in the second week they concentrate on visual art, and in the third week they take trips to art galleries and studios around the city.
“What we’ve developed over seven years, is what really works is when you give the children the chance to choose what creative art they do,” Kreidie said. “It gives them a sense of ownership.”
This was the first year that NLArts students held a performance after the program ended. Musician Dominic Angellela worked with the kids on creating the music played during the performance, which local musician Tom Spiker helped them record.
In the near future, Kreidie said NLArts is planning a workshop where kids redecorate garbage cans in the neighborhood with colorful designs. The group will also hold a workshop soon in which kids will build drones, and another planned neighborhood art project is for an interactive sculpture that will serve as a water fountain for dogs.
“That’s important to us, providing things that can be retained in the neighborhood,” Kreidie said. “That’s one ultimate goal we have, to make things that kids will look at their whole lives and be like, ‘I did that.’”
You can reach Sam Newhouse at email@example.com.