Community Spotlight: the Cleveland Junior Jitterbugs

On Saturday, May 12, Boulder Swing Dance will host a fundraising dance for the Junior Jitterbugs, a charitable organization that provides dance lessons, life skills, and empowerment to Cleveland youth. I caught up with its founder, Valerie Salstrom, to learn more about the Junior Jitterbugs and its mission.


LH: So, how does the program work? Is it free for the kids?

VS: Yes, it’s always been completely free for them. I’ve done it a couple different ways: I’ve run it through a local nonprofit and I’ve also run it through the Frankie Manning Foundation. In the past couple years it’s changed a little bit because we lost our fundraising locally, and I had fundraising fatigue and was like “I can’t write another grant application!” But we’ve had a lot of support from the greater swing dance community, so it looks like we’re going to be re-starting the after-school program next year.

It started out as an in-school program and then changed into an after-school program, but in both cases, they’ve never had to pay anything for it. Nothing for practices, nothing for costumes, nothing for the snacks that we provide. Because otherwise they couldn’t do it.

Yeah, so many of those after-school activities are absurdly expensive, once you add up the fees and equipment and everything else…

Yeah, and there are definitely neighborhoods in Cleveland where they could afford things like that, but that’s not really who I want to serve. I want to help people who don’t have access to the arts and who are kind of underserved by life in general, and give them a place to go.

Because the programs are after school, it takes a burden off of the family, so they don’t have to pay for two days of daycare or worry about rushing home from work. They’ve got two days a week where the kids are getting snacks or dinner, and they know that they’re in a safe place and are learning. Not just about dance, but also about communication, teamwork, leadership, problem-solving… simple things like how to shake someone’s hand or how to introduce yourself. Little things that can mean the difference between getting a job or not, when it comes to that time.

That’s really awesome, especially since it sometimes seems like there’s more talk about working with underserved populations than follow-through. I don’t know of many other places that are doing this kind of work.

Baltimore definitely has a program that’s working through the schools to serve kids who normally wouldn’t have access to swing dancing. I think there's one in New York as well. And they’re definitely doing it in Mozambique. These places provide kids an opportunity to learn job skills, people skills, and to give them a safe place to go.

But yeah, a lot of people like to talk about it online, and I’m maybe less vocal because I like to just do it. Even if it’s not perfect, I’ll just start starting heading in the direction of my idea. The kids will show me the way.

So, how long have you been doing Junior Jitterbugs?

The after-school program? Since about 2006. We had a four-year grant that was in the school, and when that program was going to be over, we told the kids, “All right, this is the last year you’ll have us. Have fun, keep dancing.” They were like, “Nope.”

Four kids got hold of my business cards and called me. One, Derrick, was like, “Miss Valerie, you said that swing dancing exists in Cleveland. Show me! I want to go to a dance.” I was like, “Wait, do the adults at your house say this is okay?” He handed the phone to his mom and she said she was on board.

So I show up at the school on Friday to pick them up and there’s a whole bunch of kids there. There were probably about 15 kids who all came to the dance, and they loved it. Seeing what they had learned in context blew their minds. They thought it was the coolest party trick ever that you could do a tuck turn and it would work with people outside of their classroom.

Do you have kids in that program who’ve continued swing dancing after they’ve aged out?

Yes, we’ve had a few. Some of the ones who’ve stuck with it the longest are Alexis Davila and Cyle Dixon. They’ve stayed on to help coach the other kids, which has made it a lot easier for me since we can break up into smaller practice groups. They both just started their first year of college this past August.

The program originally was only supposed to be fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, but then kids were bringing their younger siblings because they were responsible for them. And other kept staying on after they aged out, so I told them they could mentor and help teach the younger ones.

So now Alexis and Kyle are traveling and competing and performing. They’re going to be in Houston at the end of this month for the Houston Jazz Dance Festival, which has all African-American staff, teachers, promoters and performers.

 That sounds so cool! So, for this upcoming fundraiser, is the money being raised for a special event?

The kids really want to go to ILHC this August, so that will definitely be part of it. We practice several times a week for multiple hours all throughout the summer. Even though the local library doesn’t charge us for practice space, we try to give them a little money anyway. Food is a big expense, too. They’re little, so I didn’t think they would eat that much, but some of my boys are constantly eating!

We’re also preparing for a couple events here in Cleveland where I’d like to have the Junior Jitterbugs perform. But we’re primarily focusing on ILHC, including transportation costs, shoes, costumes…. And I can’t buy those too early in the summer, because they’re kids and they end up growing! Last year we had to buy shoes last-minute because a few kids outgrew them.

Overall, it’s really a great self-esteem booster for some of these kids. They really identify as dancers. Even if they don’t do well in school or are a little bit socially awkward, it’s a group where they fit in and feel accepted.

Yeah, it’s all about making that family.

Absolutely. It means so much to them to be with other kids who dance.

Thank you again to Valerie for sharing with us about your organization. Front Range dancers, I hope to see you at the dance this weekend!