Make or Break Year for Citystep

Benefit Ball Tonight

To Sabrina Peck '84, combining disparate talents is not unusual. Her mother is a sculptor, a dance teacher, and a writer; her father is a doctor and a lawyer.

And so in the spring of her senior year, when she was "thinking of everything from Wall Street to law school to international affairs," Peck came up with the idea for Citystep, a dance-and-public-service program, and turned a dream into a high-kicking reality.

"You get so much pressure to take a road that has been traveled," she says about her choice to remain at Harvard for two years after graduation. "I stopped worrying about my future and started thinking about ways I could make a contribution with the talents and resources I had."

Peck combined her dance, choreography, and theater experience with her inspiration to teach children and brought Citystep to four Cambridge public schools. Peck visited each school twice a week, teaching about 85 fifth and sixth graders to express themselves through dance; at the same time, she taught Harvard undergraduates to teach the art of dance.

Working closely with Harvard's most talented dancers, composers, musicians, and technicians, Peck directed and choreographed Citystep performances in which schoolchildren performed on stage alongside Harvard undergraduates. In the last two years, the Citystep troupe has performed at the 350th Stadium Celebration in September and the Boston Shakespeare Theater.

Passing the Torch

For the last two years Peck has nursed Citystep along. But at tonight's black-tie benefit for Citystep--featuring the campus band Robespierre and singer Fiona Anderson '88 in the Charles Hotel--Peck will not be appearing as the program's director/choreographer for the first time.

This year Peck has turned Citystep's reigns over to three undergraduates and is gradually giving up her baby. Campus observers are wondering whether Peck's dream of bringing a Harvard arts program into the public schools can survive her departure.

So far, the prognosis looks pretty good. Under its new leadership, participation in Citystep has blossomed: the number of undergraduate teachers has doubled to 32; the number of children in the program has risen from about 85 to 120; and the group has its own Cabot House office, complete with a telephone, answering machine, and filing cabinets.

With Peck's departure, other things about Citystep have changed. The tasks she used to do alone, for instance, are now shared by all Citystep members.

"We are concentrating this year on laying the groundwork," says Rebecca C. Shannon '89, one of the program's three new directors. "We're making it much more of an established Harvard organization than just Sabrina's vision."

Even the competition for teaching slots is getting stiffer. This year, about 80 undergraduates tried out to become Citystep teachers, and 32 were chosen--a unique mixture of serious dancers and spirited teachers.

Grade School Mentality

In the past, Citystep consisted of Harvard undergraduates and graduate students--some who danced in a separate company and some who taught in the schools. That all-Harvard company has been dissolved, and all Citystep members now teach in the public schools.

"The energies were being divided between the kids and the show," Shannon says, adding that the group's main focus is on the children.

The biggest difference from the first two years of the troupe's existence is the stronger emphasis on teaching this year, members say. The first year, Peck taught every class in every school herself with the aid of 15 Harvard students. Last year, teaching teams under her direction went out to the schools and choreographed some original numbers, as Peck tried to phase herself out of Citystep.

"I knew all along I needed to stay on one more year," Peck says. "My goal was to make it a self-perpetuating student organization."

New members say that the public service aspect, more than the artistic side of Citystep, brought them to auditions.

"I don't really dance, but the dance we teach the kids is really simple," says James F. Cook V '89, a first-year member. "What really attracted me to it was working with the kids."

But the guiding philosophy behind Citystep has not changed. Peck developed the idea as a collaboration between dance and teaching. "It's getting kids to express what it's like growing up in a city through movement and drama," she says.

Shannon says this vision still holds. "It's a very serious artistic endeavor," she says. "It's not just a babysitting program."

While many observers thought Citystep would collapse when Peck left, the group is flourishing. "The reason the thing has succeeded is that it has artistic validity," says Myra A. Mayman, director of the Office of the Arts.

"I feel like [Peck's] are big shoes, but I feel like we're filling them very well," says Shannon.

Since the all-volunteer program started, funding has been one of Citystep's biggest obstacles, Peck says. She spent the summer of 1984 trying to get the project off the ground, getting approval from Cambridge public schools and getting public funding to run the $15,000-a-year program. Because of budget cutbacks, Citystep received only minimal assistance from the Cambridge school system.

So Peck turned to Harvard, where she received funds totalling about $4000 from several sources, including the dean of students at Harvard and at Radcliffe, the Office of Government and Community Affairs, the Quincy House Committee, the Undergraduate Council, the Office of the Arts, and Education for Action.

But now that Citystep is entering its third year, funding is running out. A number of sources--including the Undergraduate Council, which doles out roughly $48,000 a year to student groups--have a policy of not funding organizations on a recurring basis.

Like the council, the Office of the Arts cannot continue to support established groups like Citystep. The Office of the Arts has a total of $10,000 to be used for grants, Mayman says, so it must award a limited number of grants as "seed money" to new groups starting up.

Cutting the Chords

Although she has relinquished control of the program, Peck is working in Cambridge on a film about Citystep which she says will help the group's fundraising efforts and promote similar programs on other college campuses.

"I've left Citystep, but I can't leave Harvard until I know that Citystep's financial future is on firm footing and that the program is bedrocked on this campus," Quincy's former dance and drama tutor says.

To keep a steady financial base, Citystep islooking for funding from private and commercialsources. "I don't think we've even tapped thegrants that are available," says Shannon.

Tonight, Citystep is also holding its secondannual benefit ball at the Charles Hotel. Lastyear's campus-wide fete netted about $5600, Pecksays. The money goes toward transportation,lighting, sound, costumes and other theatricalexpenses.

Movin' On

After she completes the Citystep film, whichwill be shown at the group's December production,Peck says she hopes to work for a New Yorkphilanthropist who is organizing an internationalperforming arts festival in Manhattan.

Peck says she needs her own mentor in the arts."It's time for me to be part of someone else'slarger project.