Youth standing by dance studio mirror

On the banks of the Potomac River, in an elegant performance space with 25-foot high ceilings and white crinkle-textured walls, youth from LAYC’s Teen Center in DC added hundreds of sticky notes to studio mirrors that ran along the length of the room. The notes read:

Belonging is smiles and laughter.

Belonging means acceptance.

I feel like I belong when we aren’t afraid of each other.

Last month, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts invited 30 LAYC youth artists from LAYC’s sites in DC, and Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, to explore the theme of “belonging” during its REACH Festival, in its new REACH performance space. It is an extension of the Kennedy Center’s mission, an open stage for inclusive, accessible and interactive programming. The REACH Festival was a 16-day event featuring 1,000 artists, including string players of the Kronos Quartet, contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems, and pianist and producer Robert Glasper.

youth dancer in costume

Inside of Studio J in The REACH, LAYC youth performed for hundreds of festival attendees. Youth took turns performing rap songs, reciting poems, playing African drums, debuting original beats, and dancing across the stage in front of a capacity audience. After the performances, youth and their instructors who they worked with over the summer provided interactive workshops, teaching Afro-Caribbean dance moves, and explaining how specific drums achieve distinct sounds.

group of drummers


Although sharing their art in a world-renowned venue like the Kennedy Center was a new experience for many of the youth artists, they captured the attention of their audience like seasoned performers.

This is the first time that I’ve ever read poetry about being a part of the LGBTQ community in front of an audience, and it felt really good not to be judged by people in the audience or by the other students at the event,” said Meshach, a poet from LAYC’s Teen Center in DC.

The trip to REACH may have been a first for many of the performers’ families, but LAYC’s new partnership aims to make sure that it’s not their last. The Kennedy Center has graciously offered the use of REACH for future LAYC events.

See more photos from the performances

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