Ballet Stars
Misty Copeland works with a MindLeaps student in Kigali, Rwanda last week. Photo Courtesy MindLeaps.

In 2015, Misty Copeland travelled to Kigali, Rwanda with MindLeaps, an international NGO that uses dance to help at-risk youth develop life skills. Up until that point, the program had only been available to boys; Copeland's visit launched MindLeaps' Girls Program. Now, three years later, Copeland's just back from another trip week-long to Kigali.

MindLeaps does more than just teach dance. The organization uses free classes to draw vulnerable youth, many of whom are orphaned and living on the street, to safe spaces within urban slums. Once they're regularly attending dance classes, children are enrolled in programs in digital literacy, nutrition support, sanitation services, sexual and reproductive health, and academic catch-up classes. Eventually, the participants go on to boarding schools or to work-study positions, breaking the poverty cycle. "When you learn about the [Rwandan] genocide, you see how strong people had to be to survive. When you look at these kids today, you can see their resilience. Those are themes of my life too—to overcome all odds to succeed," Copeland told Pointe via email. Copeland's work with MindLeaps expands behind her visits to Rwanda; through her ongoing work with their International Artists Fund she works to represent the organization in the U.S. In 2015, she also founded a scholarship to send a promising student, Ali, to boarding school.

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Courtesy MindLeaps

Since the start of her career at American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has been committed to giving back. “Having taken my first ballet class at a Boys & Girls Club, there was no way for me not to forever keep it a part of my life," she says. Over the past few years, she has expanded her philanthropy. This past November, she traveled to Rwanda with MindLeaps, an organization that provides free dance classes to homeless youth as a way to introduce structure into their lives. Eventually, the program offers vocational training with computer and English classes and sponsors boarding school educations. Here, Copeland shares her weeklong experience in Rwanda, and how dance can transform lives.

I always say that dance saved my life—it gave me every opportunity and made me an intelligent and articulate person. Art can develop you as a human being, and I saw that through MindLeaps. In fact, I don't think I really understood the magnitude of the program until I was in Rwanda. MindLeaps is trying to stop the cycle of poverty, and it's amazing that it all starts with dance.

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Misty Copeland with a student from the MindLeaps Girls Program in Rwanda. Courtesy MindLeaps.

As someone who experienced poverty as a child, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland has since become a powerful advocate for disadvantaged youth. And she recently found a new platform to help give back. Last week, she returned home from Kigali, Rwanda after working with the humanitarian nonprofit MindLeaps, which serves some of the city's poorest children, many of whom are homeless and lack access to school.

MindLeaps uses dance classes to improve the children's cognitive development and prepare them for more structured learning environments. Eventually it adds classes in English and IT to prepare them for either boarding school or the workplace. Until now, the program has only been available to boys. Copeland arrived to officially launch the MindLeaps Girls Program, and to award a top dance student the Misty Copeland Scholarship to go to boarding school.

Copeland admits that the level of poverty she witnessed was eye-opening. “Kids literally live on the street!" she told Pointe over email. “Dance is giving them hope, a goal, a real escape. They are connecting their memory, using their brain for physical coordination, using their words to describe what they're doing and creating."

Copeland kept a video blog to document her experience, which included meeting the girls and leading them through a basic ballet class, as well as visiting mass graves from Rwanda's 1994 Tutsi genocide. In this video, a young boy, Ali, shows her the concrete tunnel under the street where he sleeps at night. Watching his reaction when she later offers to sponsor him to attend boarding school is priceless.

MindLeaps is currently raising funds for the Misty Copeland Scholarship and Girls Program through the International Artists Fund. “Dance sets you up for life in the most beautiful way," she says, “and my time at MindLeaps was the most extreme truth of that."

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