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Inspiring Tomorrow’s Performers: La Jolla students choreograph dance opportunities for others

Ashlyn Hunter (left) and Sharisa You founded Inspiring Tomorrow's Performers.
Ashlyn Hunter (left) and Sharisa You founded Inspiring Tomorrow’s Performers to provide performing arts classes to underserved students.
(Courtesy of Ashlyn Hunter and Sharisa You)

Ashlyn Hunter and Sharisa You, both incoming seniors at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, have danced their way into a nonprofit they started to share their passion for dance with those who have fewer opportunities to perform.

They launched their organization, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Performers, during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide performing arts education to underserved students across the country.

Ashlyn, 17, and Sharisa, who turns 17 on Friday, July 16, have been involved in dance since early childhood. Using the Zoom online platform to hold Sunday-morning workshops during the last semester of the 2020-21 school year, they taught dancing, singing, acting and drawing to groups of students.

The weekly workshops are on pause for the summer break from school. Ashlyn and Sharisa are instead holding virtual summer camps.

The first camp, called “Dance Crash Course,” finished June 25 after five afternoons of different dance styles taught by the founders and other Bishop’s students they recruited.

The next camp, called “Immersion in Art,” will begin Monday, July 19. It will include improvisational, theater and other dance styles.

Inspiring Tomorrow’s Performers classes and camps are free to students. The instructors donate their time. ITP’s email list currently has about 110 students; 10 to 15 show up for any given class.

ITP was planned out of Ashlyn and Sharisa’s frustrated pre-pandemic desire to share their love of dance with others. “We really wanted to work with children in San Diego that … couldn’t afford to go to dance classes,” Ashlyn said. “Through our process, we found that we couldn’t find anyplace to teach these children because we weren’t 18.”

She said they placed their plans on hold, then revived them when public health guidelines prompted many organizations to turn to virtual platforms to gather.

“We figured out that we could use Zoom as our platform instead of a physical location to meet,” Ashlyn said. That method eliminated concerns about adult supervision.

Taking ITP to Zoom also meant the founders could expand their offerings beyond San Diego.

“We started reaching out to thousands of schools all across the U.S. that are in underprivileged areas” where performing arts budgets are limited, Ashlyn said. “Now we have kids spanning from the West Coast to the East Coast.”

The goal “isn’t to make them professional dancers or performing artists,” Sharisa said. “It’s really to inspire their creativity and get them interested in the performing arts, something that they might not have a chance to do.”

Ashlyn said the ITP workshops and camps are aimed at children ages 5-10, though many students are as young as 4 or as old as 17. “We don’t restrict anyone from coming. As long as they’re old enough to be able to attend and interact, [or] if they’re in ninth grade or 10th grade or an 11th-grader, they can.”

“The most fulfilling part for me,” Ashlyn said, “is seeing any smile from any kid. If there’s a smile, I know I’m doing my job because I’m bringing joy to a kid that wouldn’t get it necessarily through dance if they weren’t in ITP.”

Sharisa said that “at the beginning, we had a lot of kids who had no dance experience, and especially during the [summer camp], the growth was phenomenal. There were kids who were really uncomfortable learning, uncomfortable turning their camera on, and toward the end, they were willing to speak up and unmute their microphone without us asking if they had any questions.”

She said she receives comments from students like “I’m so glad I got this workshop,” “Can you do more summer camps?” “I love dancing now.”

“I feel like getting that feedback is really rewarding, that all of our hard work is paying off and that we’re actually impacting kids in the way that we wanted to,” she said.

Though ITP’s students are the organization’s primary beneficiaries, its instructors also find participating rewarding. They have “the opportunity to work with kids in their field of passion,” Sharisa said, noting that community service options in performing arts are scarce. “We give them the opportunity to teach what they really like to do.”

“Dancing is a very vulnerable sport,” Ashlyn said. “You have to be confident to perform in front of an audience. … You have to have mental and body confidence, and that’s really something that we want to project onto these kids.” She said she wants them to apply that confidence to other aspects of their lives.

Sharisa said she wants ITP’s students to have the opportunity to be creative outside of their schoolwork.

Both Ashlyn and Sharisa hope ITP goes into the next school year with more volunteer dance instructors and more students from anywhere in the country, expanding the nonprofit’s footprint.

For more information on volunteering or becoming a student with ITP, visit itperformers.org.