The image of a little girl in a tutu is one that warms the hearts of many parents. There is something about sending children off to dance class that has become a staple in society. In Israel, countless dance studios open each year to meet the booming desire of both boys and girls to study dance. Yet how many of these students actually aim to make a profession out of their after school activities?

Statistics clearly show that while dance is a beloved pastime for children, very few actually go on to pursue it as a career. As such, it is clear that there is great value to the practice of dance regardless of the final outcome.

This thought, that dance can enhance the lives of youngsters, was the leading source of inspiration for Graham Smith when he established The School of Life and Dance five years ago. The American-born dancer, choreographer and director had already spent many years in Germany working when the idea for this endeavor hit him.

Having worked with young adults over the years, Smith sought out to find a more permanent framework for both himself and his students. Over the course of several months, Smith hand-selected a group of individuals, both dancers and non-dancers to join him in what became a major experiment.

Last week, Smith, together with the Machol Shalem Dance House, held a workshop in Jerusalem to find the individuals that will soon make up the Israeli branch of the School of Life and Dance. The meeting coincided with MSDH’s biggest annual event, the Jerusalem Dance Festival. This year also marks the 10-year anniversary of Machol Shalem’s establishment as a dance presenter and production house.

In the coming months, the chosen group will meet with directors of MSDH, Ruby Edelman and Ofra Idel, while Smith continues his work in Freiburg, Germany.

Then, in the summer of 2013, Smith and his 15 students will travel to Jerusalem for a joint meeting of the two groups. The goal is to present a performance at the end of the summer gathering, however, the details of what this performance will look like are still unclear. There are also plans in the making for a second meeting in Freiburg in 2013.

Though Smith is open to whatever the local participants will bring, his goal was to keep the groups on the same page, so to speak.

“They aren’t dancers,” said Smith in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post. “One is a carpenter, some are studying to be teachers, park rangers, social workers.

The common denominator is that they all love to dance yet only one or two of them want to be professional dancers. The youngest are 15 years old and the oldest are 24. It’s a really broad range.”

With his pack in tow, Smith set in motion a twice-a-week model, allowing the participants as much freedom as needed to make the schedule fit their needs.

“They show up when they can, I don’t have a strict attendance policy. It’s important that the kids continue their lives. But there is a commitment that needs to be made. Rehearsal plans are always really complicated. Because of our approach, I have a much more committed group because they feel extremely involved in it.

I take a lot of input from the kids. I need people who work as a team, take initiative and think for themselves. If they don’t have the strength they’ll collapse. Every once in a while I put them through a trial, and it sorts itself out kind of Darwinist manner,” explained Smith.

Their projects to date have included performances both inside and outside of theaters.

For the most part, what interests Smith is the possibility for interacting outside conventional performance settings.

One particularly memorable project brought the young dancers to a detention center for illegal immigrants, where they conducted an improvised performance while interacting with the residents.

“They had two hours where they wander into this black box, cultural bizarre in the forest. It was really crazy. It was only possible because I have kids who are able to work with these situations,” said Smith.

For now, the Israeli chapter of The School of Life and Dance remains on the drawing boards. However, based on the turnout last week, Edelman is confident that the future for the project is bright.

“We had about 20 people come,” said Edelman. “They spent several hours working with Graham. They were mostly in eleventh grade but we also had some older dancers.”

With their list of names in hand and with their festival behind them, Smith and Edelman will now sit down to brainstorm how to continue their work via satellite.

“We are about to have a big, big Skype conversation,” laughed Edelman.

For more information about the project, visit www.machol-shalem.org.

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