One of our first lecture-demonstrations took place at a school in the South Bronx where a large percentage of the children were living in temporary housing, including shelters and refugee centers. It’s probably fair to say that most of the children had never seen a professional dance performance, let alone one in which they were treated to a diverse sampling of ballet, tango, salsa, hip hop dance, and more. The children were transfixed by the performance but perhaps even more importantly, they seemed to understand at an intuitive level that the artists of Accent Dance NYC had a special bond with one another, forged by dance, and further solidified by the unified goal of bringing the joy and beauty of dance to children just like them. The performance ended with an enthusiastic question-and-answer session in which one student stood up and asked, “Do you feel like a family when you dance together?” To me, this summed up better than anything about how dance has the unique ability to transform and unify people.
I had the pleasure to interview Andrea Ziegelman, President of Accent Dance NYC and President of the Erwin and Isabelle Ziegelman Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
Andrea was born in Detroit, Michigan and comes from a family of classically-trained pianists, cellists, singers, and violinists who held leading positions in professional symphonies and opera companies in the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. Along with the study of piano, Andrea pursued rigorous ballet training throughout her youth, enrolling after high school in the ballet department of the University of Utah. Andrea also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in French literature from the University of Michigan and attended Georgetown University School of Law and Columbia Law School. In addition to maintaining a law practice in Manhattan, and being appointed by judges to represent children in family law cases as their attorney and as guardian ad litem, Andrea continues to enjoy taking regular dance classes, performing, and teaching dance to children of all ages. As a long-time patron of the arts, Andrea started Accent Dance NYC with her fellow teaching and performing artists to bring the highest quality of dance education programming to school-aged children in New York City and in neighboring areas.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, the child of a family of Russian-Jewish cellists, violinists, and pianists on one side and Polish-Jewish doctors, lawyers, and architects on the other. Education was of paramount importance to my family, as was exposure to the arts. As a child, I was able to delve into my academic studies while also pursuing my passion for ballet, which continued through my college years. At the same time that all of these opportunities were afforded me, I also recognized that the inner city out of which my parents took my brother and me in the late 1960s was filled with people who were not nearly as lucky as me; they were trapped in a cycle of poverty, prejudice, and inadequate education, in a city divided by racial conflict and socio-economic strife.
Accent Dance NYC emanated out of a desire from my childhood to right some perceived wrong in society. When I returned to the ballet studio in my fifties, after raising children and spending thirty years practicing law, I seized an opportunity to realize a dream to bring the power and beauty of dance to children in neighborhoods like the Detroit of my childhood. My ballet teacher, Elisa Toro Franky, was a beautiful and highly-articulate professional ballet dancer from Colombia who shared, along with another cherished dance colleague, Mara Driscoll, my enthusiasm for bringing high-level dance performances and dance residencies to children in underserved communities in New York City and neighboring areas. Ultimately, the group expanded to include many other international teaching artists, choreographers, and professional dancers from Cuba, Haiti, Argentina, Spain, Puerto Rico, and the United States, and Accent Dance NYC was born.
Can you explain how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Accent Dance NYC is all about creating a positive societal impact on children in underserved communities. We do this by bringing quality multicultural dance education and performance programs to schools and communities, advocating for widespread access to the arts and dance education while highlighting the power of dance to showcase the diversity, unify cultures and communities, and transform lives.
Accent Dance NYC has served over 1,200 children since its inception in the fall of 2018. With students ranging from 3rd through 12th grade, each child is engaged in a creative, compassionate, and hands-on experience, devoted to inspiring, enlightening and empowering them both inside the classroom and out.
Accent Dance NYC’s mission stresses the critical importance of arts education to the intellectual, physical, and emotional development of every child, while being culturally responsive to the particular needs of the communities it serves, and expanding the potential for inner-city youth to think critically, communicate effectively, and seek future vocation in the arts, instilling hope in the children and their families, no matter their circumstances.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of our first lecture-demonstrations took place at a school in the South Bronx where a large percentage of the children were living in temporary housing, including shelters and refugee centers. It’s probably fair to say that most of the children had never seen a professional dance performance, let alone one in which they were treated to a diverse sampling of ballet, tango, salsa, hip hop dance, and more.
The children were transfixed by the performance but perhaps even more importantly, they seemed to understand at an intuitive level that the artists of Accent Dance NYC had a special bond with one another, forged by dance, and further solidified by the unified goal of bringing the joy and beauty of dance to children just like them.
The performance ended with an enthusiastic question-and-answer session in which one student stood up and asked, “Do you feel like a family when you dance together?” To me, this summed up better than anything about how dance has the unique ability to transform and unify people.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During one of our first lecture demonstrations, our moderator sustained a mild electric shock when plugging our sound equipment into an outlet in the school’s gymnasium, which caused me to take over her speaking role that day. Although I also was responsible during this particular performance for turning on the music before the start of each dance piece, and otherwise orchestrating other aspects of the show, I was distracted by the fact that this particular school gymnasium seemed somewhat “electrified”. Although we have acquired a good sound system for these lecture demonstrations, we cannot control every aspect of the school settings in which we perform. Moreover, at this particular lecture-demonstration, the music was loaded onto one of our artist’s computers. Although he tried to explain to me before the show that I had to “clear the queue” on his computer after starting each piece so that the rest of the pieces would not play immediately thereafter, his explanation went over my head as I tried to juggle the many events of that morning. After the professional dancers had finished an exciting pas de deux from the ballet Don Quixote and were taking their bows, the next dance piece started playing automatically, much to my embarrassment and the children’s laughter. After the performance, one of the young students came up to me to say how much she enjoyed the performance while also suggesting that I should consider brushing up on my basic computer skills, because learning new things — as we had pointed out during the lecture-demonstration — was important in life.
One of the take-away lessons from this experience is to do a thorough site visit before each event while also expecting that some things invariably will go wrong in a school setting no matter how much planning you do. And yes, I have had to learn many new things since starting Accent Dance NYC, many of which are outside of my historic comfort zone.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
In our first year working with underserved children in the South Bronx, we have experienced a whole range of hurdles reaching certain children who invariably have suffered trauma, socio-economic struggles, or other physical, emotional, learning, or other hardships. There was one little boy in particular who came to class each week, loathe to participate. He would literally lie down on the floor at the beginning of the class, hiding his head between his arms. At other times, he would start to engage, and then suddenly flop onto the floor again, taciturn, pulling his hoodie over his head, as if a terrible wave had come crashing over him.
Notwithstanding these and other significant hurdles, I wholeheartedly believe that providing a steady, nurturing, creative, and empowering environment for all children through the medium of dance is transformative. So, we persevered, conveying as best as we could to all of the children important life lessons of commitment, discipline, creativity, and self-expression.
Right before the culminating performance at the end of the dance residency, this same boy expressed to me and to his other teaching artists how much he wanted to have his family present that day to see him perform. Although he was saddened they were unable to make the show, with his teachers’ encouragement, he got on the stage with all of his classmates and danced his heart out, beaming ear to ear. No child could have exuded more joy and enthusiasm than this boy.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Society as a whole is not an equitable place. And some sectors of society are substantially disadvantaged when it comes to resources. Children born into these sectors have fewer opportunities for exposure to transformative experiences, such as the arts. We should remain mindful of the unequal access to the arts through society and work even harder to advocate for and serve, precisely those communities who need and deserve the arts as vehicles of hope, beauty, and transcendence.
Our politicians and educators should vigorously promote STEAM educations for our youth, citing significant empiric studies to show that children who have access to the arts do better academically, emotionally, and otherwise than their peers.
Racism destroys the fabric of society and politicians who incite racist thinking should not be tolerated by any political party.
How do you define Leadership? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. But all leaders share a passion for making the world a better place, using their voices to persuade others to join and amplify their mission.
Examples of leaders are all around us. I’m personally struck right now by our youngest leaders, those who have spoken out about gun control in this country. They have learned to effectively channel the invaluable skill of advocacy and how to spread the word to millions of people through social media.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Establishing and running a not-for-profit is a full-time job. When I started Accent Dance NYC, I thought that I could run the not-for-profit and maintain a full-time legal job at some time. At some point, when we were in the thick of fundraising for our first large-scale gala/benefit performance, and I also was preparing for a trial, I realized that something had to give. I could not have two full-time jobs and do them effectively.
Running a not-for-profit is as challenging, if not more challenging, than running a for-profit business. You need to have all of your legal, business, and other ducks in a row as it relates to the particular needs of your business, and you need to raise money in a way that can be more challenging than in the private sector, especially if the charity involves the arts. I never worked this hard to make money or gave a second thought to branding, press releases, social media, fundraising, grants. The work came and the money followed. That is not the case running a not-for-profit. You have to work very hard for every dollar earned.
Artists have crazy work schedules and can be hard to pin down. When we first started coordinating the teaching and performance of artists’s schedules, I thought I was going to lose my mind. They had so many gigs and always were running around, whether teaching, performing, singing, modeling, or the like. These are multi-talented, international artists, and it takes high organizational skills — and patience — to keep up with, and lock in their schedules.
Each core member of the team needs to believe in the mission. You need a core team of people who not only are talented and skilled but who also are committed to your particular mission. Unless the core team is in it to win it, the operation most likely will fail, especially when you are in the growing stage. I have worked hard in the last year to identify team members who really believe in what we are trying to accomplish. It’s more than just saying the right things or being there when it’s convenient. Over time, you begin to develop a core group on which you can rely and you build from there. If someone isn’t pulling their weight, you need to move on.
Never let the children down. Once you are in a school or after-school program, you have to assume you will be there for a long time. After we did a short residency at an after-school program in the South Bronx, I realized that the children looked forward to our return, they relied on us, and we needed to be there for them, year to year. We are going on our second year in the program and I hope we will be able to continue to work with these children for many years to come, watching them grow and develop, and lending our support. The last thing you want to do is be there for the kids and then disappear.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would want to create a platform and a global fund for children from every country, no matter how disadvantaged, remote, or politically unstable, to be able to exchange ideas and collaborate artistically with other children and artists throughout the world, making and performing works of art together, in the hopes of unifying and transforming cultures, notwithstanding political, social, cultural, language and other barriers.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time”. Angela Davis
I feel a need to remain true to my loftiest ideals, notwithstanding the hurdles, the nay-sayers, the barriers. And I know that “time is of the essence”, as they say in the law.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them?
Michelle Obama. Who could be more inspiring? And for me, she strikes the right balance of being outspoken and diplomatic, compassionate and strong-willed.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
We can be followed on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @AccentDance NYC
Use our hashtag #AccentDanceNYC
Media, upcoming events and more can be found on our webpage at www.accent.dance