Can music, theater, or dance prevent bullying? Jane Pinczuk says, “Absolutely.” And she has a curriculum and program methodology that backs up her claim.
The Music in Me Foundation International, a Silver Spring, Maryland–based nonprofit, offers afterschool programming, including 17 classes each week at Montgomery County public elementary schools, along with free or low-cost classes at local recreation centers for both youngsters and adults over age 55. Through theater games, collaborative activities that build confidence and self-esteem, along with choral singing, dance and drumming lessons, and performance opportunities, Pinczuk finds that children are less likely to fight or bully others. Bullying can lead to isolation and depression, even in very young children. She suggested that not every child is game for sports or academics. Some need a creative outlet for their energies. Music in Me provides that.
Pinczuk came to learn through the difficult challenges faced by Michele, her own daughter, that creative outlets can provide a holistic approach to educating youngsters and encouraging them to utilize all their skills — Pinczuk calls them “superpowers” — across different learning styles. Her daughter suffered from a rare gastrointestinal disease. In school, Michele was severely bullied and left organized education after fourth grade. Through homeschooling and special education teachers, she finally learned to read and write at 11.
From then on, Michele soared, according to her mother. At 14, the younger Pinczuk wrote the young-adult novel Sparkle, creating a character who reflected her own experiences of being bullied and contending with a life-threatening illness. She also became one of the youngest contributors to the New York Times Book Review when she wrote to an editor asking why children’s books were reviewed by adults. An avid hip-hop music fan, Michele became friendly with rapper Big Sean among others, and the two toured to schools sharing their antibullying message in assemblies. Michele Pinczuk died in 2019 at 27 of eosinophilic gastrointestinal disease.
Now Jane Pinczuk carries on her daughter’s legacy through Music in Me and its antibullying message and programming. The Music in Me Foundation, founded in 2013, creates opportunities for children and young adults to connect, make friends, and develop social skills through the performing arts. “Our program is really a very strong platform for social-emotional learning,” Pinczuk explained. “It’s been a really strong tool in the schools for getting the kids back … I don’t even want to say ‘back on track,’ because it’s a different world now [post-pandemic shutdowns]. But we see [students] learning how to connect with one another, how to communicate, how to work together, and how to feel good about themselves.”
Pinczuk calls it a “multi-modality approach,” saying, “Through drumming, dance, music, rap, American Sign Language, mime—it all helps kids find an avenue where they can best express themselves and best learn. We spend a lot of time working with kids on nonverbal communication, which is, as we know, about 97 percent of communication.” She adds, “We teach kids not only the importance of not only learning how to express yourselves without words but also how important our words are and how we say them.” Thus, both mime exercises and basic instruction in American Sign Language are incorporated, along with improvisation and character-building acting exercises, adding to the safe spaces the Music in Me program offers.
In February, the organization brought together lead actor Sahr Ngaujah and performers from the Broadway cast of Fela, along with the DC Metropolitan Police Side by Side go-go band; Adams Beat, a Muslim America youth choir; rappers and dancers on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage for an acoustic, family-friendly version of “Fela.” The free performance was one example of what Music in Me intends to do to spread the antibullying, “PeerPositivePOWER” message to the broader regional community.
The organization has recently been contracted to open an after-school and Saturday program in northwest Washington, DC, at the Cardozo Education Campus. Music in Me’s teaching artists, including its artistic director Daniel Soto, will offer afterschool classes to Cardozo’s students at no cost in collaboration with DC Public Schools. Additionally, low-cost and free Saturday classes will be available for both Cardozo students and the greater District community. “After COVID, particularly with our young people, there were [younger] kids who had never been in school,” Pinczuk said. “And the rest who were in school, but hadn’t been in for a while. We were seeing mental health issues, social-emotional learning issues.” This expansion will give Music in Me its first permanent home base and the program will carry Pinczuk’s daughter’s name: the Michele Amira Performing Arts Academy, or MAPAA.
Artistic director Daniel Soto, a Brooklyn transplant now living in Hyattsville, is overseeing much of the day-to-day programming, which will feature the popular afterschool experiences, plus supplement Saturday classes. Soto says he envisions a chorus; dance classes in ballet, African, hip-hop, and other forms; theater classes, as well as advising the school on its theater and musical productions. In coming years he intends to build the Saturday classes into a conservatory-like program to prepare interested participants for entry into competitive performing arts academies and college programs. The cafeteria will be open for supplemental nutrition options for snacks and lunches.
Soto, a former dance captain for Bill T. Jones’ musical Fela, which ran on Broadway between 2009 and 2011, is so committed to Music in Me because of his own introduction to theater and dance. “I stumbled into that world through a company called Creative Outlet Dance Theater of Brooklyn that did similar things,” he said, “just like we plan with MAPAA. We’ll introduce young students and young artists to the world of dance and the world of theater, giving them a platform to perform. Through the arts and education platform I had in New York City, I was molded into a performer … and further on molded into understanding the business of actually developing a company like this.”
Pinczuk and Soto hope MAPAA will be ready to open in a couple of months. They’ve got a stack of 200 urban drums — hardware-store buckets — and drumsticks at the ready for percussion classes and an ensemble. They’ll have dance clothes and shoes for the incoming class of dance students, at low or no cost for those who need them. Cardozo’s campus has a dedicated dance studio with barres and mirrors for Saturday conservatory-style dance classes. And there’s an auditorium available for the program to produce performances, while students can learn about stage management, set design and construction, and more.
The two also envision classes open to students of all abilities. Pinczuk revealed that her daughter Michele was on the autism spectrum, stating, “She was badly bullied throughout her life and if PeerPositivePOWER had existed when she was a child, it really would have changed the course of her life. You know, it really only takes one person to stand up — they call it being an upstander rather than a bystander — to make a difference.” Soto and Pinczuk aim to ensure that no children or young adults who cross the threshold into Music in Me classes or afterschool programs experience bullying on their watch.
“I learned through Michele,” Pinczuk said, “the importance of being able to learn and get information in different ways. If you’re a visual person, you’re going to see what we’re doing. If you’re auditory, you’re going to hear it. If you’re experiential, you’re going to feel it. This program is inclusive and based on statistically proven research that bullying can be stopped or prevented [through] peer intervention, leadership, team building, and empowerment. That’s PeerPositivePOWER!”
For further information on Music in Me Foundation, visit themusicinme.org/.
About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place. The centerpiece of these articles is a series we are calling “The Companies We Keep,” articles offering an in-depth look at one local theater company each month. In these times of division and conflict, DC Theater Arts chooses to celebrate those who do good.