Meet Do Something Awards Semi-Finalist Jackie Rotman

Jackie Rotman

Inspired in equal parts by her own dancing experience and the threats of gang activity, obesity, and low self-esteem in her area, Jackie founded Everybody Dance Now! to provide free dance programs to youth who could not otherwise afford them. Since 2005, EDN! has provided free hip-hop classes to more than 1,000 young people in her county, as well as equipped youth in eleven other cities throughout the country to create and sustain their own EDN! programs. Jackie’s organization seeks to transform the lives of youth through dance, leadership, and community.

DoSomething.org asked Jackie about the positive impact she's brought with dance and the lessons she's learned along the way.

DoSomething.org: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?

Jackie Rotman: I first realized what an incredible means dance can be for bringing people together and building self-esteem when I was 12 years old.  I performed a hip-hop dance class for teenagers with disabilities, and half way through my performance, the music stopped.  The audience shouted out, "Do it again!," so we did, but it stopped at the exact same time.  This time, we weren't sure what to do, until one girl shouted out, "We want to dance!"  We brought up groups on stage to perform in front of their peers, and I'll never forget the feeling in the room. Everyone was so united, people were so happy, and the energy was powerful. Afterward, groups came up to introduce themselves to me and their friends, thinking we were some kind of touring group, and to show us their dance moves they'd picked up from MTV - when many of them were so, so talented!  After that, I knew I wanted to do something later in my life that would help people through dance, but I didn't know what.  The name Everybody Dance Now! came when I was 13, and the mission came later and evolved.

DS:How do you feel about it now?

JR: I continue to learn more about just how powerful dance can be as a tool for social change.  Last summer, I went to Uganda - actually to work with a Do Something nominee's nonprofit that I learned about from his DS video!  While I was there, I discovered an NGO called Breakdance Project Uganda.  I was amazed to meet hundreds of young people who were using dance for the same purposes of positive social change, youth empowerment, community building, and self-expression that we use it for in Santa Barbara and in our EDN! chapters.  I started going to BPU every week, where I learned breakdance from the very basics.  Learning dance steps from another person my age, and going through all the emotions of "I can't do it! I'm not strong enough! This is hard!" but then having a teacher support and encourage me to practice, and then get so excited when I'd finally get the moves and be able to put them together - gave me a whole new appreciation for dance, teaching, and learning, and helped me understand what it feels like to be in our students' shoes.

It also taught me so much about community, cross-cultural understanding, and dance as a tool for relating with people who may be different from you.  As a white American female, I looked different than most of the people in the program, who came from challenged backgrounds - many lived in slums - and faced difficulties and certain daily challenges of life I would probably never go through.  Yet the breakdancers immediately accepted me with warm open arms into their community - I was "Bgirl Jackie" (ha!) and went to the showings of their version of "Uganda's Best Dance Crew" every Friday night with them - and it helped me understand community and culture in a new way. When you teach and learn dance from another person, you're on the same level as them, and it breaks down so many social barriers or differences, and helps us realize just how alike we all are even when we come from different backgrounds.

Learning all of these things helped us infuse these ideas, and connect Everybody Dance Now! to a part of a larger global movement, by creating our own version of the program - Breakdance Project Santa Barbara - in our community modeled off BPU.  We brought together almost 200 community members to unite across social boundaries through breakdance and create healthy alternatives for kids - and next, a few leaders and I are going back to Uganda at the end of August to cultivate our partnership with BPU (we have several donors interested in helping us bring them to Santa Barbara to teach master classes with our program) and to learn about dance as a tool for cross-cultural understanding.  Right now we're focusing on expanding EDN! nationally, in a high quality and sustainable way, but someday we want to have EDN! Global - with a model we've still yet to develop.  Who knows what we'll keep learning and how our connection to and understanding to dance as a force for social change will continue to grow and evolve over the years and throughout my life? 

DS:What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?

JR: There are lots of students I taught in my first few years with EDN! who it's been amazing to see grow over time.  I remember one student, Vanessa, who I taught when she was in 5th and 6th grade at Franklin School. She stood out for her incredible talent and remarkable attitude and work ethic.  After I went to college, she saw me on TV once for a local interview, and she called me crying she was so excited.  Vanessa moved to North Carolina for a couple years, but she just came back to Santa Barbara this year and we immediately got her involved in our pre-professional performance dance troupe.  She's amazingly talented, is now a freshman in high school, and I'm so happy that she now has an outlet to cultivate and express her talent!

Another stand-out student is Pablo Gatica.  Oh my gosh, Pablo… Pablo walked up to me when he was 10 and I was teaching at Harding School, one of my first class sessions for the program.  I was playing Ciara's "One Two Step," and he said, "I can dance to this song."  We chatted for a bit and he said, "Tell me when you're teaching, 'cuz I'm so there."  Pablo has been a part of Everybody Dance Now!'s family ever since.  He was one of the very first students we invited to our performance troupe (which involves our most talented and dedicated/passionate students from all of our sites), and he's grown immensely as a person and a dancer.  He's also been set up with scholarships at a local studio, so he now dances 5 or 6 days a week and is becoming unbelievable.  Last fall, he came to a convention that a lot of the EDN! leaders and teachers go to, where he learned from most of the choreographers and judges of So You Think You Can Dance, including Mia Michaels and Wade Robson.  He just performed a beautiful dance at our 5 year anniversary which expressed his feelings over the loss of one of his best friends who was killed at the age of 16, and he is starting to flourish as a choreographer.  I love Pablo and the ways he's grown through Everybody Dance Now! and his other experiences over an extended period of time, and he's become one of my best friends. 

DS:Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?

JR: I'm inspired by the volunteers in our organization, who dedicate hours upon hours - not just time, but also energy and their whole hearts and souls with love and dedication - into the program.  It's seeing our other EDN! leaders - many who are juggling so many extracurriculars and making personal sacrifices to serve EDN! because they know it's worth it - that inspires me to keep going and gives me energy to serve Everybody Dance Now! as well.  I'm inspired by various experiences that continue to open my mind and help me understand the power of dance, teaching, and youth empowerment and inspiring young people to be leaders - that reassure me of just how powerful our model can be in changing lives, and that make me excited about how it can continue to grow and evolve.

DS:Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?

JR: There wasn't really one moment.  Every week when I started teaching, I gained more and more trust from my students, and could start to see them grow gradually from their experiences in their EDN! class.  Over time our goals of "CREATE" grew - using dance to help young people:

C: Cultivate self-esteem and self-value

R: Respect their bodies and establish healthy lifestyles

E: Express themselves and channel energy through creative alternatives

A: Achieve goals and maintain a positive attitude through challenges

T: Take part in consistent programming that promotes friendship and a sense of belonging

E: Expand their perspectives through community service and cultural learning

I could see us make a difference in each of these components over time as we worked with our students and they benefited from EDN!.  Now, that "CREATE" mission could even be evolved to tie in more about cross-cultural understanding and community building, which we're trying to achieve through our Breakdance Project Santa Barbara program; and a huge part of our mission today is also about cultivating young people to be leaders, realize that they can channel their passion for dance into social change, and make a difference - which EDN! gives them the ability to do.

DS:What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?

JR: The biggest "roadblock" in the beginning was just finding the confidence and courage to take the first steps to build Everybody Dance Now!.  I remember sitting in the car with my mom on a car ride, and it took so many deep breaths and self-affirmations to find the confidence to call 2 girls from my dance studio who were older than me and more intimidating, and to ask them to teach and to help me start this program.  I was so relieved and excited when they immediately said "Yes!"  Then I got other mentors to help me, we built an Advisory Board, found site partners to teach at, and began classes.  Eventually we started to write grants and get donations (after receiving initial loans) so that we could pay teachers, giving them an extra incentive so that our program could be sustainable, and I learned to manage the financial and legal aspects of the organization - and EDN! grew over time.  Those very first steps can be really challenging and intimidating, but my motto is, "Even if you don't know all the steps at first, join the dance!"

Then the next biggest roadblock in EDN! came four years into running EDN!, when we were stuck as to how we were going to continue it.  I started running EDN! my sophomore year of high school, and almost a year before I moved to go to college at Stanford, I started training a phenomenal high school student, Alina, who was 2 years younger, to co-direct EDN! with me.  The year she was getting ready to go to college, we were really stuck to figure out what to do once she moved.  Could EDN! continue to be youth-run, which is so important to what makes us stand out and helps us connect to our students?  Would we need to hire adults to take over the program?  Would we become a university-affiliated group that I could help guide and transfer over partnerships to?  The fall of 2009, I reached out to all the senior dancers from my home studio and talked to the teachers and studio owners to find out who were the brightest and most responsible young dancers who I might be able to engage in this cause.  I got a big group of girls together over Thanksgiving break, found out more about their interests and started actively mentoring 6 of them on leading different aspects of the organization, and EDN! quickly became their own as they embraced the mission.  They started to transform personally, themselves - realizing they could use their love of dance to help others, and learning to work together.

It was a good thing we did that, because without having started transitioning leadership of the Santa Barbara chapter early on, I wouldn't have been able to dedicate most of my energies afterward on planning the ABDC class and then national expansion of EDN!.  Now, those girls have taken on 8 more high school student leaders through three different application periods who they've trained to run various aspects of the chapter (there's a whole system for junior high girls to be "Junior Leaders," and then high school students are "Leaders-in-Training" until they're placed in roles that suit their talents as leaders).  It's become an appealing activity to be a part of Everybody Dance Now! Santa Barbara as a team member since the program is so highly esteemed in Santa Barbara, and young people start to apply in 8th grade to be an EDN! leader.  They blossom in their roles and really grow through the experience.  Sustainability and leadership transitions are a crucial aspect of any organization started by young people, and ensuring that with the Santa Barbara chapter was one of the toughest and most important steps in EDN!'s history, which allowed us to then grow and expand from there.  We're now hoping we can maintain that kind of sustainability and high-quality leadership for the national components of Everybody Dance Now!, as well. 

DS:What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?

JR: That a leader is someone who empowers other leaders.  That you can have an infinite amount of energy if you work from your heart and allow creativity to move through you.  That you can do what you set your mind to.  That you don't have to wait to be an adult to make a difference; young people have an enormous amount of potential and can be leaders of social change and public service right now.  That listening is one of the most important aspects of being a good leader.  That you can train yourself to think, speak, and write in ways that lead to greater to success.  To have courage.

DS:What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?

JR: So many things have surprised me! - mainly the wonderful opportunities and doors have opened up.  I remember writing in our 2007-2008 group goals for Everybody Dance Now! that our leadership team assembled and put together, "Bring a crew from America's Best Dance Crew to teach our students at a master class."  I remember feeling compelled to write in a grant application in January, 2010, a plan for how we would leverage a particular grant and contest to help others create chapters of Everybody Dance Now! in their own communities - it was this strong urge to write it, even though I didn't yet know how that would be possible.  Then in February, 2010, I woke up one morning and saw on my iPhone a message from someone about Do Something asking I was available for a potential chance to be on America's Best Dance Crew's charity episode (to which I said, yes, of course! - even though it was supposed to be finals week).  I had to go back to sleep and wake up again just to realize I wasn't dreaming!  Being on ABDC provided the perfect platform for Everybody Dance Now! to share our message with the world, to inspire people to create their own chapters, and to join our movement.

We worked like mad for the next several weeks and months trying to design a model for and restructure our organization as one that could support young leaders in creating their own chapters.  Today - just one year since being on ABDC - we've equipped chapter leaders in 11 cities, with several more we are training at our second conference in this summer, and emails that have come from 11 countries across 4 continents so far.  And being on ABDC has opened up so many other publicity opportunities, like Family Circle Magazine, and now a major celebrity who we're in conversations with now who wants to support us.  There's been a lot of luck in the process, which I'm so so grateful for, and those opportunities are what have surprised me.  But they've also been rooted in goals and visions and dreams that we've put into writing and said out loud and maintained with a strong intention for a long time - which shows me just how powerful our thoughts and intentions can be in manifesting realities if we believe in what we are doing strongly enough.  The next random "dream" to put into writing is that I hope a documentary can be made about Everybody Dance Now! and this movement of young people who are channeling their love of dance into helping other kids, and showing how dance can be an unbelievably powerful tool for cultivating self-esteem, bringing people together, facilitating powerful cross-cultural interactions, and more.

DS:What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?

JR: It all starts from your frame of mind, and how you are thinking about what you're doing.  I once heard the mayor of New Jersey, Cory Booker, say something like, "The way you see the world is a direct reflection of how you see yourself."  I recently had a call with our Everybody Dance Now! Stanford chapter directors.  They were having trouble with a lot of aspects of running the chapter - recruiting teachers, student attendance, the quality of the classes, etc.  I helped them see how a shift in their frame of mind in how they are seeing the program - to stop stressing so much about its problems and to truly have a positive attitude, envision what they want the programs to look like, and see them that way - can change how they communicate the program to others, can get more people excited to get involved, and can lead to the changes they want to see in how the chapter is running.  Basically, look at the thoughts you are telling yourself about your project and see how you can have a positive attitude that allows you to make your goals a reality!

ALSO, it's very important to find the right mentors and people to help you!  That's a crucial part of any project - new ones, or continually evolving ones.  The people involved in a project - whether it's an organization, club, business, etc. - are what truly make it.  Find mentors, find great volunteers, find partners - and then UTILIZE and draw on their skills and talents and what they're good at and enjoy doing, to try to create a well-functioning team that can work together in an impassioned way to achieve your goals.

DS:If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?

JR: I would have taken better care of myself - specifically, by making sure that I still made time to take dance classes, myself, while I was running EDN!, instead of sacrificing that since my other schoolwork and responsibilities took so much time and I wanted to give all of my energies to growing Everybody Dance Now!.  It's so important to take care of you and your health, so that you can give back to the world.  However, service and Everybody Dance Now! also give you a very powerful kind of energy and joy - and that's something I can't get from anywhere else, and that has given me strength, motivation, a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and joy throughout any life obstacle.  I honestly wouldn't change a thing and don't have any regrets with how EDN! has unfolded.

DS:What’s next for your project?

JR: There's a lot!  Right now I'm personally really focused with Everybody Dance Now! on its sustainability at the national level.  I've been building this organization since the dream emerged when I was 12 - I've nurtured it and given it life before it even had a name, a mission, a concrete existence to everyone else.  More than 6 years later, we've done so much -- and I want to make sure that it can keep continuing for a long time, beyond any single person's leadership.  We're focusing on equipping the right leaders and ensuring that we have the system and foundations in place for Everybody Dance Now! to continue for a long time. We just got our 501c3 nonprofit status, are building a Board of Directors, and are continuing to solidify our chapter training curriculum and chapter manuals so that we have a strong system in place to equip chapter leaders in other cities.

As far as expansion and new steps beyond just focusing on sustainability: We're getting ready for our 2nd Annual Leadership Training Conference this July.  We had 5 new chapters are our conference last year, we've now been working with a total of 11 chapters, and we're going to bring on a few more this summer based on the large amount of interest we've been getting from tons of people finding out about EDN! from ABDC, Family Circle Magazine, Channel One News, Unity Lab, and other publicity opportunities we've been featured in, as well as word of mouth.  We're provide them with initial training to learn about the EDN! Model, Site Partnerships, Teacher Training, Leadership/Teams/Transitions, Public Relations, Finance, Ethics/Values, Thought & Visionary/Listening-Based Leadership, and more - as well as interacting with each other and our performance troupe - so that they can start to build successful EDN! chapters in their communities.  Then EDN! continues to support them through national chapter support calls and mentorship, as well as the provision of various resources like websites we set them up with, and legal/grant/501c3 nonprofit status help.

A year or two from now, I'd love to see EDN! classes being offered to 1,000 kids on a weekly basis all throughout the country!  After that it's developing EDN! Global somewhere down the line... 

And I almost forgot.  A few EDN! teachers and leaders are going back to Uganda this summer, to work with two of the breakdance organizations that I got involved in last summer.  We want to explore together how dance can be a powerful tool for rich cross-cultural interaction; and we hope to build new partnerships between Breakdance Project Uganda and EDN! (specifically our Breakdance Project Santa Barbara program that we modeled off of them) to see how both programs can benefit from each other.  We have a few funders interested in bringing the founding members of Breakdance Project Uganda to the United States to teach master classes with Everybody Dance Now!.  There's also a possibility that we'll perform in Berlin, Germany this summer, though I can't speak to that yet with 100% certainty. 

BONUS Q: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?

JR: Jason Mraz. He's hot, vegan, spiritual, and an amazing singer - I love his music.  Or Channing Tatum.  That romance scene in Step Up, or him dancing, WOW!  Okay sorry that's not all community service related (Channing Tatum dances though!) but either of those celebs would be great!  My little sister also would like to meet Justin Bieber so if it can't be either of those two (or Justin Timberlake or Usher), I guess we could settle for him.  (joke!) 

Read up on all of the Do Something Awards Finalists now!