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Meet Joseph Rodgers and Soleste Lupu of Dancing In the Streets Arizona (DITSAZ)

Today we’d like to introduce you to Joseph Rodgers and Soleste Lupu.

Joseph and Soleste, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
We met as Ballet crazy teenagers in Maria Morton’s ballet school in Tucson. Years later, after first marriages and families, we came back together and discovered that we now both shared a passion for bringing ballet to the next generation. With a modest sum of money received in celebration of our wedding, we founded Dancing in the Streets Arizona (DITSAZ) in 2008. The DITSAZ studio is located in South Tucson, a one-square-mile city surrounded by the City of Tucson that maintains a strong cultural heritage but struggles with high crime rates and poverty. The mission of DITSAZ is to use the power of dance to transform lives using the excitement and discipline of ballet to guide children in developing positive life skills, and to break down cultural barriers and enrich the community’s artistic experience. The students take classes and perform in professional settings regardless of their income level, physical shape/size, or skill level.

DITSAZ has served children with incarcerated parents, victims of abuse, those with serious physical and developmental disabilities, as well as non-traditional ballet students, such as wheelchair-bound, or with other physical limitations. Regardless of background or how they became involved, these students have discovered they can do more than they ever thought—not just across the dance floor, but in the classroom, in their family, and in their community. DITSAZ has demonstrated that dance education provides at-risk youth and all students a vehicle to experience positive teamwork and discipline, develop friendships that challenge cultural barriers, and most, importantly, experience accomplishments that serve to broaden their sense of life possibilities.

Since 2008, Dancing in the Streets Arizona has enrolled over 1,200 individual students; more than 100 students ages 3 to adulthood are enrolled in each of our sessions. Although classes are offered at a very low cost, more than half of our students over the years have been able to enroll only with financial help from DITSAZ; many have participated in classes without any payment. We also provide dance supplies (leotards, shoes) to families who are unable to purchase them.

Performing for the community is an important part of a DITSAZ student’s experience. We stage both full-length ballets at Tucson’s historic performing arts venues, as well as smaller, shorter community performances on make-shift stages in church halls, community centers and parks. We have presented annually a costumed, lighted full-length ballet, each year accompanied by live orchestra music before audiences of 300-500. A special part of these performances is that they are accompanied by a live orchestra (the Civic Orchestra of Tucson). This experience of performing for family, friends and strangers is a peak experience for many of our students.  Their families, many of whom have never seen or heard a live ballet or live orchestra, have been inspired to participate in and take ownership of their human legacy of artistic expression through dance. 

Another unique aspect of our performances is the way we integrate dancers of all physical and mental abilities. Our ballet ability girls dance in their wheelchairs, and receive the same performers high and gratification as our other dancers. It is also inspiring for dancers dancing on their feet to work with the dancers in wheelchairs and experience both the limitations they have to overcome and the artistic joy they are able to express in a different way. 

Our students tell us that the discipline of dance supports them to find ways to succeed in school and in life. Several students are finding success as professional dancers. A few others have pursued careers in theater tech. 

FULL-LENGTH PRODUCTIONS.
• The Nutcracker, December 2008-2019 (Average 140 performers each performance) with live orchestra
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, June 2009 (70 performers)
• Summer Intensive Dance Showcase, August 2010 (75 performers)
• Summer Intensive Dance Showcase, August 2011 (70 performers)
• Mozart Requiem A Dance of Angels and Other Works, June 2013 (90 performers)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, June 2014 (90 performers)
• Mozart Requiem A Dance of Angels and Other Works, June 2015 (90 performers)
• Peter and the Wolf and other Works, June 2016 (90 performers)
• Cinderella April 2017 (100 performers)
• Sleeping Beauty April 2018 (120 performers) with live orchestra

Awards and Recent Accomplishment
• DITSAZ received a Spotlight Award for Business of the Year from Blue Cross Blue Shield and Body by Jake. March 2020 came with $10, 000.

  • Founders/Artistic Directors, Joseph Rodgers and Soleste Lupu, Received Arts Hero awards for 2018/2019 season by OnMedia publications.
  • DITSAZ Received 2018 Community Service awards from Tucson City Council Member Richard Fimbres Ward V.
  • DITSAZ was nominated two years in a row 2017 & 2018 for Tucson Metro Copper Cactus Awards, in the category of Tucson Electric Power Charitable Non-Profit.
  • 1 DITSAZ Student, who graduated from Pima Community College is dancing professionally in Santa Barbara, CA with State Street Ballet.
  • 5 students were accepted and completed State Street Ballet’s summer intensive program 2017 and 2018.
  • Dancing in the Streets AZ is in the Congressional Record by Congressman Raul M. Grijalva, Volume 161, Number 62, Tuesday, April 28, 2015 Extension of Remarks Pages E599-E600.
  • Founders/Artistic Directors, Joseph Rodgers and Soleste Lupu and Founding Board Chairman Marian Lupu (Deceased) received Community Service Medals from the City of Tucson, Awarded by Councilmember Richard Fimbres, and Honorable Mayor Johnathan Rothschilds 2016.
  • Founders/Artistic Directors, Joseph Rodgers and Soleste Lupu, were awarded Dance Teacher of the Year in 2014 in a national competition of 600 nominees.
  • Nominated for Governor’s Arts Award 2014 Artist Category.
  • Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC) 2013 Lummie Award, Emerging Arts Organization.
  • League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Community Service Award 2014, FBI Community Service Award 2016, and Rosa Parks Living History Makers Award 2008.
  • Certificate of Recognition for Dancing in the Streets AZ 2008, from Ramon Valdez, County Supervisor, District 2, City of South Tucson Proclamation 2008, Mayor Jennifer Eckstom.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
We have had many obstacles during our past 12 years. Being an interracial husband and wife team teaching ballet in a low-income area is just the start. Encouraging Boys to take ballet has been a constant struggle Americans are taught to praise the athlete practically from birth. We surround young men with images of football and baseball stars. We dress them in miniature jerseys and swaddle them in team blankets. That is our culture ― that is our normal. Ballet dancers are artists whose training schedules rival those of elite athletes without the athlete’s salaries.

A dancer who starts taking a ballet class at the age of 8 or 9 will clock nearly 10,000 hours of training and rehearsal by his 18th birthday. Boys and men who dance full-time will log even more hours in the gym and at physical therapy, keeping their bodies as strong and fit as those of professional athletes. This problem goes beyond ballet: we encourage perceived strength over all kinds of artistry and often force boys to play organized sports while diminishing the role of the arts in schools.

Another obstacle is fighting poverty of the mind. Not having enough money doesn’t keep you from having full, rich dreams. But having no positive attitude over your bad times is real poverty. Yes, we have experienced lack of money, but we have always had plenty of dreams. We show our students how you can achieve anything by putting your thoughts and imagination to work. Ballet helps low-income students push themselves beyond the boundaries that are constantly drilled in their heads. With continued training, they start to move and think differently. Fighting cultural barriers is still a struggle. Many families rely on the male children to take care of the household and are not encouraged to attend higher education. Ballet encourages adopting a Growth Mindset, which allows you to become curious, experimental, to reflect on what’s holding you back. It also means you can learn from someone else’s success, rather than resenting it. One obstacle is that some times parents will notice the physical and mental changes in their children and rather than supporting their children’s success, they seem to see it as a rejection of their cultural heritage. This can lead them to take them out of ballet, even though the child loves it. 

Raising money is always a challenge for non-profits, especially when you don’t have paid staff. We have to wear all the hats from Janitor to Artistic Director. Fewer funders are providing grant opportunities to performing arts groups, especially since COVID has made it difficult for so many people to meet basic needs for food and shelter. Advocating for performing arts is a constant struggle at this time; STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) has been the main focus for so many foundations and businesses. This should be changed to STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math). The Kennedy administration helped to establish the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) it is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.

The arts generate more money to local and state economies than several other industries. According to data released by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts contributed $804.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016, more than agriculture or transportation, and employed 5 million Americans. Each year support to the arts has been cut and more and more youth are not given any opportunities in public schools to experience the performing arts.

During this Pandemic, Dancing In The Streets AZ, like other businesses was forced to close due to concerns about COVID-19 and the Public Health. We received no financial assistance and had Zero revenue for the past three months. Because of the nature of ballet classes, we were not able to offer drive-thru or take-out like restaurants. On-line ZOOM classes for the population we serve was not an option either, most of the students do not have a reliable internet provider, laptops, or they share one device with the whole household. 

We’d love to hear more about your organization.
What makes us different than other studios is our commitment to our student’s success, which means sometimes we have to pick up and drop off students to and from class; purchase dance attire for students whose families can’t afford to purchase proper attire; purchase pointe shoes for advanced students; feed hungry students; refer parents to other organizations in our community to go for help. At DITSAZ, we feel that we are all in this together. This is a community investment and many of our students and families face inequitable access to quality education, gainful employment, food insecurity, and safe and stable housing. These inequities highlight the urgency of our mission to build thriving communities through the power of arts education. We don’t lower our standards even though we deal with a vulnerable population of students and families.

We are so proud of the fact that our minority-owned husband and wife school has lasted in a rural city for 12 years, going on 13 providing high-quality classical ballet training to a population that would not have had this opportunity. We heard it over and over again “Those people” won’t learn ballet that only fueled us to push harder at success with our students. We are proud of the number of students that have gone on to attend and graduate college with dance scholarships. We are proud of our students that are dancing professionally with State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara, CA and Louisville Ballet. We are proud of the fact that Dancing In The Streets AZ has always created a ballet studio where everyone has an opportunity to learn the classical art of ballet regardless of their size, shape, income, age, and everyone is welcome, long before it became fashionable to do so! Everyone can benefit from Ballet classes. Dancing impacts pretty much on every aspect of our lives—including our brains. That’s right: Dance makes you smarter.

Benefits of ballet:

BALLET IMPROVES POSTURE. Many people spend hours sitting in front of screens or in classrooms, which can create bad postural habits with long-term effects. Well, Ballet can address that by helping achieve postural alignment. Ballet classes help to develop correct everyday posture, improving balance and coordination. And increasing awareness of the way you might be standing, sitting, or walking in your daily life.

BALLET BUILDS MUSCLE AND AGILITY. Believe it or not, Pilates and some endurance training took their inspiration from the ballet technique! Pliés, Sautés, Pirouettes* will use your own bodyweight to strengthen your core and lower body. Ballet also requires you to breathe with coordination throughout your dance sequence, increasing your cardiovascular strength, making Ballet the complete perfect training to improve motor skills!

Pliés = squatting, Sautés = jumps, Pirouettes – spins

BALLET IMPROVES FLEXIBILITY. Flexibility is not a prerequisite for Ballet; you gain it through regular practice. Since Ballet involves static and dynamic stretching, doing both will contribute to your overall flexibility.

BALLET IMPROVES SENSORY MOTOR PERFORMANCE. The ability to balance yourself and react to external stimuli is indicative of how tuned your sensorimotor skills are. Participating in a Ballet class enhances these skills by engaging both hemispheres of your brain for coordinated learning. Becoming proficient in Ballet challenges your brain to synchronize your form with the expectations. A meta-analysis found that Ballet was a useful measure to limit age-related mental impairment, such as dementia too.

BALLET IMPROVES LEARNING ABILITIES AND PERSISTENCE. Knowing how to memorise four combinations in a week comes in handy when you need to remember seven math formulas for your next exam. Ballet dancers are asked to remember intricate routines, patterns and movements on a daily basis, and their training makes them top of the class in memorizing anything. Furthermore, whether trying to conquer a difficult Ballet step or master a physics formula, ballet teaches students that giving up isn’t an option.

BALLET MAKES BRILLIANT PROBLEM SOLVERS. Ballet is always asking dancers to do multiple things at once, making them great at solving tricky problems. Plus, dancers always think eight Steps (or counts) ahead. Smart people plan ahead, and that’s a quality every dancer has too. Because your body couldn’t have executed that tricky turn sequence unless your brain knew it was coming three/eight-counts before.

BALLET MAKES AMAZING LISTENERS. Helping students better understand and appreciate even the trickiest music, another sign of intelligence.

BALLET BUILDS CONFIDENCE. In addition to its physical benefits, ballet can also help to improve mental and emotional health. The training in Classical Ballet instIlls a sense of pride and accomplishment, which will boost self-esteem. As students improve and master more challenging movement combinations, they feel more self-assured, which can carry over into other areas of their life.

BALLET PRESENTS SOCIAL BENEFITS. Ballet classes foster teamwork, communication, trust and cooperation. Ballet also helps to forge new friendships, overcome shyness or awkwardness in social situations and reduce the fears associated with being in a group and performing in front of an audience.

What were you like growing up?
Joseph Rodgers and Soleste Lupu met in ballet school as teenagers, then went on to have careers and reconnected in 1997 and got married in March 2008. Upon returning to Tucson, AZ, they started Dancing In The Streets AZ in August 2008, using startup funds from their wedding gifts.

Joseph Rodgers, a native of Tucson Arizona, began his studies at the age of seven. His home life was complicated. His mother and father were working alcoholics. He was discovered at St. Ambrose school by Maria Morton, founder of Tucson Academy of Dancing. She offered him a full scholarship and his early training was in the Royal Academy of Dancing syllabus. George Zoritch, danseur noble, of the famed Ballet Russe, was an early architect in Joseph’s ballet career and offered his wisdom and encouragement. Joseph received a full scholarship to continue his training with the San Francisco Ballet School. As a professional dancer for the past 25 years, he has performed with many ballet companies, including; the Arizona Dance Theater, Ballet Arizona, Feld Ballet New York, Ballet Chicago, and Milwaukee Ballet. His energetic style and motivational talents have fueled his teaching career. Mr. Rodgers’s last performance was in 2004 in a televised PBS performance of Der Fledermaus at the Kennedy Center with the Washington National Opera, directed by Placido Domingo. Like the prodigal son, Joseph returned to Tucson to give back to the community and help at-risk-youth see more possibilities and another way of life.

A native of Tucson Arizona, Soleste Lupu received her ballet training locally at the Tucson Dance Academy under the direction of Maria Morton. Ms. Lupu received additional ballet training from Ismet Mouhedin, George Zoritch, Jose Valenzuela, Stephanie Steigers, and Neil Cowhey. Soleste is versed in both the Royal Academy of Dancing ballet syllabus and the Vagonava ballet syllabus. She also has training with jazz (Luigi), operatic and musical theater, and viola (orchestral and chamber). Soleste Lupu performed with the Southern Arizona Light Opera Company (SALOC) Plain, and Fancy, South Pacific, and Oklahoma under the direction of Hal Hudley. She received her early musical training from Tucson Junior Strings, Dennis and Anna Bourret Directors.  In 1981 she received a scholarship to attend the NAU summer music program. She performed with the University of Arizona music, and dance departments performances included; chorister and dancer in Marriage of Figaro and Die Fledermaus, she also played Viola with the University of Arizona Symphony. In North Korea, Camp Humphreys, she choreographed and performed in numerous productions to include: Babes and Arms; Macbeth After returning to the states, her performing career spanned more than 20 years with many regional companies across the country.

After retiring from the stage, she worked for five years with Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) in Washington DC. CLASP is a non-profit public policy and advocacy organization. There she helped to conduct research, policy analysis, technical assistance, and advocacy on issues related to economic security and family stability for low-income parents, children, and youth. She was the first full-time Audio Conference Coordinator and was responsible for managing, CLASP’s widely acclaimed national audio conferences on low-income and poverty issues.

Soleste’s early childhood was influenced heavily by her mother, Marian Lupu, who was the founder of Pima Council On Aging https://www.pcoa.org/, one of the first area agencies on aging and her father who was a biochemist and accomplished violinist.

Pricing:

  • Adults can take single drop-in classes or they can purchase a 10 class card for $65. that is good for 3 months and can be shared with another adult.

Contact Info:


Image Credit:

Scott & Anna Griessel, https://www.creatista.com/ non-watermarked images are by Directors

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