When Project LIFT was started at New York Theatre Ballet in 1989, I thought that teaching ballet to children from homeless shelters would be something I could easily contribute to their rather bleak lives. I quickly found that classes were a means to many ends – not just to develop them as dancers or build up their artistic sensibilities, but to increase their self-esteem, improve their respect for authority, and lead them to discover that what really matters is how hard they work, not where they come from.

Most children in LIFT have difficult childhoods – worse than most of us could imagine. They are exposed to drug abuse, physical and sexual abuse, poverty, and crime. They are expected to take on adult responsibilities and care for their siblings. They live lives of deep uncertainty, few rewards, and emotional upheaval. Most lack basic social coping and learning skills.

When the children are very young they want to succeed in life. As they get older, they begin to see that they have little opportunity. In most cases, their parents don’t know how to support their child’s learning. The children are led to believe that they can grow up to be this famous sports star or that entertainment figure or world leader. Unfortunately, without persistent intervention, most are unlikely to rise above their bleak circumstances to attain even the worthy realistic goals available to them. More than anything else, they need sustained attention, in a stable, caring environment.

In their first year in the LIFT Program, they’re learning dance to a high standard, but focus is on teaching learning skills – how to listen, how behavior affects the whole class, the importance of being on time, that graffiti on the school walls is a sign of disrespect, that it’s important to respect their elders and classmates. Our most important job is to instill self-esteem and to teach what it takes to achieve a goal, using the discipline of ballet as the tool. Of course, we’re working to give the children who are gifted for dance a real chance at a dance career, but the bigger goal is to give them a real chance for a meaningful life.

- Diana Byer, Founder, President, Artistic Director, NYTB