Performing arts education as a foundation for youth empowerment

A young Hong Kong dancer's reflections on South African arts NGOs

Erita Chen
Erita Chen/2020
25 February 2022

Jazzart inspired me to work hard. It made me confident in myself, allowing me to reach my dream of being a dancer.

Jazzart student

I was sitting in a steaming rehearsal tent in Cape Town, South Africa when my performance partner started telling me about how she fell in love with dance. A 19-year-old from townships, this young woman had been on the cusp of dropping out of school when she was recruited by Jazzart Dance Theatre, a UNICEF SA implementing partner and local dance NGO that provides conservatory training to underserved youths. For the first time, I began to see the human impact that arts education could have on others.

I had come to South Africa two weeks before in February 2020 to dance in an arts charity fundraiser. The performance included Jazzart and the Amoyo Performing Arts Foundation, another UNICEF partner and arts NGO. As I rehearsed alongside local dancers from the organizations, we would exchange dance tips and life stories. I then learned from these students about Jazzart's professional dance training and Amoyo's extracurricular arts programs, and what a difference these organizations had made in their lives. One of my fellow performers told me how she contemplated dropping out of school before joining Jazzart.

Another was dealing drugs before he found a passion for drumming with Amoyo. Later, some students shared that they, and many of their peers, would be the first in their families to graduate from high school. When we performed at the benefit, I could feel their passions as they threw themselves into the music, moving with grace and fervor. Within those few weeks, it was clear that the arts had truly transformed all my fellow performers' lives, giving them purpose and meaning.

Erita Chen/2020

Then, COVID struck. Just two days before I meant to go home, South Africa went into one of the world's strictest lockdowns. As the days dragged on, I reached out to my dance partners and their NGOs to see how they were doing, including Kim Conley, the founder of Amoyo. The shuttering of arts venues meant that Amoyo was in financial trouble and risked closure. That could not happen – Amoyo had given purpose to so many through dance. I knew I had to do something. I realized I could connect these South African arts NGOs with my Hong Kong community, leveraging our resources to make a difference and keep the organizations afloat in a time of crisis.

Still locked down in Cape Town, I spoke to potential Hong Kong donors over Zoom. I told them about Jazzart and Amoyo, detailing the personal stories of my collaborators and what they had told me about their friends. These cases, I put forward, showed how successfully these programs uplifted youths in underserved communities. Though the narratives moved many donors, some questioned: "how exactly can the performing arts be responsible for this empowerment?" I racked my brains and came up with more tales, but anecdotes simply were not enough. To make the most compelling pitch possible, I needed to back up my examples with hard evidence: how could the NGOs use the arts to transform their students? How did they achieve the results I had seen?

Over the next few months, I observed and took part in Jazzart and Amoyo's classes, interviewed the NGOs' students, and dug into secondary sources on arts education. I compiled my findings into a research paper, synthesizing the relationship between the performing arts and youth development. I had already seen that Jazzart and Amoyo used their programs to change lives, but now, I understood how they worked.

Although they cater to different age groups, Jazzart and Amoyo follow similar methodologies. They build trust between participants and instructors to teach not only artistic technique but also communication skills, job preparation, stress management, and how to make positive life choices. And, since the NGOs partnered with UNICEF South Africa's Safe Parks – protected areas where township youths can go to after school – these NGOs have been able to reach more students in need. My research paper has been attached to this article. I hope it will show you that arts education is a necessary and effective tool for uplifting underserved youths, equipping them with the skills and confidence to chart their own ways in the world.  

UNICEF South Africa is grateful to Erita Chen for engaging with donors and in sharing this research.

About the research paper

Jazzart and Amoyo: Performing Arts Education as a Foundation for Youth Empowerment

This paper investigates the role performing arts education non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play in empowering impoverished youths in South Africa. UNICEF South Africa supports civil society to strengthen arts-based programming which provides a safe environment for young people to express themselves and engage with their peers and adults on relevant issues.

The safe environment established in lessons builds trust between students and the organizations; the NGOs then leverage this trust to teach life skills and provide resources targeted towards community-specific issues like truancy, teen pregnancy, and drug use. Together, this methodology forms a three-pronged approach to the NGOs' programmingteaching the arts, communication, and health—and successfully deters students from high-risk behavior.

Download the research paper [PDF]