Philly program uses dance to interest girls of color in

This story originally appeared on Chalkbeat Philadelphia. 

Women and people of color are under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and math. But there’s an effort afoot in Philadelphia to change that through an unusual mix of dance and coding lessons.

DanceLogic, which is run by the West Park Cultural Center, is “designed to educate, inspire, and cultivate girls of color in STEM,” said Betty Lindley, the founder and executive director. Lindley started the program in 2018, teaming up with Franklyn Athias, a Comcast engineer, to offer basic coding lessons along with dance on Saturdays.

The premise: Both coding and dance use repetition and combination, so using dance as a hook to attract girls to the program could lead to an interest in coding. Proponents say programs like danceLogic and others around the country are win-win, motivating kids to enter promising fields, while also diversifying and adding to the STEM workforce pipeline. And programs that get kids interested in STEM when they are relatively young can be especially successful.

Dance, Lindley said, is “a hook” to open girls’ minds to exploring something new. “There are not that many females in technology, especially coding,” she said. “There are career opportunities that girls just aren’t aware of or don’t even think about exploring.”

Recent research out Lindley’s point. A 2021 National Science Foundation report found that women made up just 34% of the workforce in the four professional fields collectively known as STEM. Meanwhile, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans collectively accounted for just 23%.

Those low percentages persist “because we’ve allowed them to persist,” said Dia Jones, executive director of the STEM Educational Institute, a nonprofit group that provides technology programs for high school students in under-represented areas.

Programs like danceLogic, Black Girls Do STEM, and the Ujima GIRL program at the University of California-Davis are a way of making inroads by reaching girls of color before they get to high school, she said.

DanceLogic students range from 12 to 18 years old. Most girls in the program participate at no cost, Lindley said. The program is funded through grants and individual donations.

Each Saturday, the girls participate in dance class from noon to 1:20 p.m., take a short break, and then go into coding class until 2:30 p.m. Sessions run from October through June, culminating with a performance at the annual West Park Arts Fest.

“Much of our dance class is centered around composition and choreography,” both of which use languages and techniques to build narratives and projects, said Cameron Bridgers, a danceLogic dance instructor who applied to teach at the program after receiving her dance degree from Temple University.

Students complete a coding exercise during the study portion of the danceLogic program in West Philadelphia. (Courtesy of West Park Cultural Center)

For example, she said, the class developed a dance score using coding language to note choreography. “In the future, I hope to expand on this with the girls and see how it progresses with their understanding of both worlds,” she said.