Yo-Yo Ma performs for Inner City Arts kids on Los Angeles's Skid Row

Yo-Yo Ma Meets Memphis Jook on Skid Row

KPCC

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma visited Inner City Arts, an education program based on Skid Row, and found inspiration in the jook dancing style of Lil' Buck and the faces of children.

Downtown Los Angeles got a double-dose earlier this week of world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He and his Silk Road Ensemble performed before a high-brow audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday night. On Tuesday morning, they took their instruments to Skid Row to Inner City Arts - this time to play for kids.

He’s won more than 15 Grammy Awards and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, but master cellist Yo-Yo Ma almost disappeared in a quartet of musicians gathered onstage for a quick rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade.”

They were preparing for an interactive music and dance demonstration with more than a hundred grade school students from the L.A. Unified School District.

Damian Woetzel is a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. He organized the event – and called it an “arts strike.”

"You go in, and you show the power of the arts," said Woetzel. "You show what the arts are doing. You celebrate people who are doing it well. You try to inspire the kids, and as we learn, we get inspired all over again by doing things like this. That’s an 'arts strike.'”

The musicians slowed the tempo as Woetzel taught some basic ballet moves to 4th graders from Charles Kim Elementary School. But the “arts strike” wasn’t all classical music and ballet.

"Who knows how to do the moonwalk?" Charles Riley asked the kids.

The L.A.-based dancer known as “Lil’ Buck” taught the kids a Michael Jackson-style moonwalk as the musicians plucked chords from Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Lil' Buck then demonstrated some moves from a hip-hop style called “jookin” he learned in his native Memphis. Lil’ Buck twisted his feet one way, then another – explaining that jookin wasn’t much different from ballet.

The lesson was a discovery for 10-year-old aspiring jazz dancer Annika Dudley. "Because there’s like a whole bunch of different dances, and now I’m learning about all those different dances," Dudley said.

Lil’ Buck later wowed Dudley and her classmates with some of his jookin while Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble played “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens.

"All the things that they talk about these days, with where our country is going – we need an innovative and knowledge work force,” said Ma. "The best way to build innovation and creative imagination – and the most efficient way to do it – is actually by movement, visualizing, sound.”

Ma applauded his host – Inner City Arts, the nonprofit arts education center that serves 8,000 at-risk students each year. Bob Bates founded the program 22 years ago when public schools were cutting arts program to save money.

Bates calls creativity a door that a lot of kids don’t learn how to open. "So we help them open that door by putting an environment in front of them that enables them and empowers them to explore," said Bates. "They may be musicians, they may be auto mechanics, but the value of the creativity is that it’s like the life’s blood."

Ma visited Inner City Arts 14 years ago. His visit this time crescendoed with more jookin from Lil’ Buck, more string sounds from the Silk Road Ensemble and more Galician bagpipes.

"We can build community like nothing else," said Ma. "All it takes is imagination, attention and empathy – that we care."

Ma’s Silk Road Connect Program hopes to do a lot of “arts strikes” across the country.

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