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A rare opportunity…

Bad ass choreographer, dancer Nika Kljun!

Each year, some of the best choreographers, dancers, and studio owners get together for a weekend benefit that raises money in hopes of finding a cure for Cystic Fibrosis. The event – Dance to Breathe – is pretty unique, but I probably wouldn’t have known about it had I not been involved with my studio.

Last year when the event came around, I was excited to see what it was all about and see my fellow classmates perform in the final show. It was at that show that, not only did I learn much more about CF, I also realized how lucky I am to be a part of my studio – not to brag, but I’m learning from some of the BEST in this city (if not the country).

As part of this benefit, there is usually a celebrity choreographer that comes to town to teach a master class. Last year, I was scraping by all of my spare dollars and sending them to the IRS, so I couldn’t attend the master class. This year however, I’ve already paid my taxes, so I was anxiously awaiting the reveal of the guest choreographer.

It was none other than Nika Kljun – here’s her resume from her website:

She has worked on major projects such as Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Ne-yo, Pitbull, T-Pain, One Direction, Cher Lloyd, the Britney Spears tribute on MTV Video Music Awards, Jessica Sanchez, Donna Summer, Kaya Jones, Gina Katon, Matt Pokora, Herb Alpred, Macy’s Glamorama fashion tour, Monsters of hip hop, Billboard Music Awards, Young Hollywood Awards, NRJ music awards, X-Factor USA, UK & France, America’s Got Talent, The Voice, Move Live on Tour and was just recently, for the year of 2015, a part of Justin Bieber’s dancing team.

As a choreographer or assistant she worked on projects such as So You Think You Can Dance in the USA, Ukraine & Portugal, Move Live on Tour with Derek & Julianne Hough, Dancing with the Stars, Kellogg’s summer campaign, Kaya Jones, Lena Katina, Blake McGrath, Victoria Bech and Monsters of Hip Hop show to name a few. You can catch Nika at Tremaine Dance Conventions, Monster of Hip Hop or Monsters A-list conventions around North America. 

…Like… are you kidding me? She’s an insanely talented dancer – and highly trained in traditional forms of dance, which makes her hip hop game solid. I’ll admit, though, that I was a little bit nervous to buy a ticket for her master class. I know that I’m late in my dance game.

I started taking jazz classes in middle school – and that is where my technical training ends. I danced on a competitive dance team for five years – being captain for two of those years. We were scrappy, and I recall very late nights at the studio, or in hallways, recounting and modifying movements to look sharp.

But I took a solid 10+ year break from dance. In that time, my body has changed, and parts of it have taken quite a beating between boxing training for four years, full-time retail and restaurant service work, and generally just getting older.

I know I struggle to pick up choreography quickly (although I am getting better), and I feel heavy on my feet. I have been to auditions and am learning to accept that even if I don’t make it (and I never have), it’s a free opportunity to learn from someone new, and at least try.

Sometimes, even if I can just get 1 8-count in a set of 7, I am really proud of myself, because the difficulty level is so far beyond me. Trying counts for something.

Many of my fellow dancers said they were taking Nika’s class, even if it meant standing in the back. Yeah, I thought, I’m going, too.

“You’ll walk away learning something,” one instructor told me. And he was right.

So, I bought my ticket. I woke up the day before the class with a classic flare-up of my pinched nerve. Because of course! But, I took my normal Saturday class, laid on a heating pad for three hours, popped a pain-killer, and headed downtown to meet Nika.

Right off the bat, I was pleasantly shocked at how nice she was – how much she simply wanted to help us learn and have fun. She taught us a combination from Jennifer Lopez’s tour, which was just cool to see.

I have never, ever tried any of the classic ballroom dancing, and she showed us the cha-cha, and salsa, and simply said, “Now you can watch ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and really know what they are doing!”

It was tough, and I struggled, and I stayed in the back. But, I gave it all I had and I pushed myself. Yes, a lot of people in the class were KILLING it. But many of them were also 16 – ah, to be young and thin and energetic!

Nonetheless, it was a humbling experience, and it makes me respect the hustle for choreographers and dancers. This is a physical industry – there’s no half-assing it if you’re on tour with Justin Bieber.

When the class was over, I was tired and sweaty, and snapped a picture with Nika, giving her a big thanks. I felt twice her size, but it’s whatever. I went home and had a solid night’s sleep – I suppose that’s what happens when you dance your ass off for almost three hours, pretending you’re JLo!

Saying goodbye to CASA.

In 2012, I read a book that really struck me. The book was “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder” by Karen Spears Zacharias.

At the time, the book was the featured reading for a community-wide book club in Baton Rouge. In this large club, the author would come speak. So, I read the book in about two days in preparation for Ms. Zacharias’ arrival, and I was able to set up an interview with her. Here’s what I wrote (on my former blog) about it:

Great book!

Great book!

Book number 12 of 2012 is an unexpected one, “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of A Murder,” by Karen Spears Zacharias. 

The genre, memoir or true crime, is an unexpected choice for me, but rather how I stumbled upon this book is. Originally, I planned to read a short, easy book lent to me by a coworker. I needed something light after finishing “Audition” by Barbara Walters. 

However, another coworker pointed out to me that the summer’s “One Book One Community” was quickly approaching. Was I planning to attend? she asked me.

I attended last year, after reading a phenomenal book (“Crazy” by Pete Early); the author comes to town and speaks, and answers questions about the selected book. It’s a great chance to hear from successful writers.

“I enjoyed attending last year,” I told my coworker.

She told me she wasn’t going to have enough time to read the book beforehand, so she would let me borrow it, if I wanted. Of course I did — I cannot, and will never pass up a free book.

And so, “A Silence of Mockingbirds” fell into my hands. When I had a chance to sit down and read a few pages days later, I dove right in, reading half of the book in one sitting.

“A Silence of Mockingbirds” is the true and tragic story of a young girl’s murder. A murder that the author, Zacharias, is shockingly close to.

Zacharias, former cop reporter, a journalist, an author, as well as an advocate for war widows, had befriended and cared for a girl named Sarah early in her life.

As Sarah grew up and attempted to take care of herself, they remained in touch. Sarah was married to a man named David, and they gave birth to their daughter, Karly. Karly, a sweet blue-eyed blonde, seemed to be loved by so many, even though her time on this earth was too short. Early in Karly’s life, her parents divorced, and her mom met a new man named Shawn.

They moved in together in after two weeks of dating.

Once they moved in, Karly’s life changed, showing bruise after bruise, losing large patches of hair, and wanting to sleep all the time.

Her father, David, as well as the woman at her daycare, repeatedly called child services to report possible child abuse. But each report and each doctor’s visit when unnocticed as abuse and written off as stress, or as Sarah put it, “allergies.”

Unfortunately, none of it was taken serious enough, or Shawn just went too far, or Sarah just didn’t care enough, and Karly lost her life at age 3, due to blunt force trauma to the head, causing a brain injury.

The trial found the boyfriend, Shawn guilty of abuse and neglect, and he spends his days behind bars. Since then, Karly’s Law has been put into place, making it mandatory for photos to be taken when a possible child abuse claim is made (no pictures were taken in Karly’s case).

As sick as it sounds, this story was riveting on its own. However, Zacharias did a massive amount of research on the brutal murder, and then wrote it all in such a beautiful way:

  • “In October, maples drop their golden parchments into the Willamette River, where they are carried downstream, letters for the beavers.”
  • “Hearing Gina quote the dead Karly punctured something in Pam. Holding back her corn-silk hair, she hunkered over the rim of her wine glass. A fierce thunderstorm gave way to tears.”

When I finish reading most books, I don’t get the chance to hear the author speak, so I am really looking forward to this.

 When I went to see the author speak, there was also a panel of speakers there to talk about the various sides of this story – one of the most obvious and most-controversial: child abuse and how it’s dealt with in our country. There was a spokesperson from CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) there, and she said something that stuck with me, “A child that has a CASA volunteer is 60% more likely to be adopted than one that does not.”

At that time, I was volunteering as a Facilitator for Dialogue on Race Louisiana; hosting weekly structured dialogues across the city to educate others on institutional racism. I wanted to look into CASA, so I did.

Within six months, I went through 40 hours of training in order to become a CASA volunteer. These trainings were after work and on Saturdays. At the end of the training, we had interviews, and ultimately decided whether or not we wanted to follow through with the volunteer. It was a year-long commitment, or until your assigned case was resolved.

I know I’ve spoken about CASA many times before, but in case you’re not sure what it is, a CASA volunteer is assigned a case that involves a child in the system, i.e. in state’s custody/foster care. As a CASA volunteer, you meet with the child at least once a month, and in general, you make sure they are doing ok, make sure they are being treated well in their foster situation, see that they are getting fed and clothed, and make sure they are doing well in school.

You also talk to people in their life; teachers, coaches, friends, etc., just to get all sides of the story. Then you write monthly reports, and you write an extensive court report about every 6 months or each time the child is to appear in court. The judge loves a CASA report because he/she can simply read it before the hearing and know what is going on within a short amount of time.

To put things in perspective, all juvenile court systems are overloaded. Each case worker has probably 200 or so cases, and the judge sees 20 cases a day. This is where that whole “CASA percentage” comes in – the CASA serves as the squeeky wheel. You stick up for your case to be sure they are not forgotten.

About 6 months after I went through training, I received a call with a pitch for a case. It was three brothers, and although I cannot reveal the details of their case, their mom had a severe mental illness issues and could no longer care for them. The boys had actually been locked in a home (had not even seen the light of day) for two years. They were entered into foster care, and I took them as my case.

For the last three years, I have visited the boys each month. We had pizza dinners, baked dozens of cookies for Santa, celebrated birthdays and student-of-the-month, we had Dollar Store shopping sprees, video game competitions, flew kites, took boxing classes, killed each other in lazer tag, and snuck so much candy into many movies.

And last week, I had to say goodbye, even though their case has yet to be resolved (yes, even three years later). I really wanted to see my case to the end, but without sounding terrible, the communication between the foster home and the court system became a battle I could no longer fight.

When I expressed my frustration with my case manager, she asked me if I wanted to resign. I did not want to give up, but I felt that I wasn’t able to give the case, and the boys, the attention they deserved. So, I sadly agreed to resign. I cried at my desk, and I told my case manager to please tell the boys that if they ever need anything, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

I have always, always wanted to help people. And helping these boys, even if in a very small way, enriched my life in a way I never thought possible. But it also breaks my heart to know how complicated the system is; and how many kids get tossed in there, completely innocent, and they may not find their way out until they “age out” and turn 18. I hope, I hope, I HOPE, the boys get a new, fresh volunteer who is ready to kick some ass and resolve their case. They deserve it – they deserved it years ago.

If you have any questions or interest about becoming a CASA volunteer, please don’t hesitate to contact me (holly@thebitterlemon.com). I am always down to help others who want to help others!

After I resigned, my case manager thanked me for my years of service, and understood that the case had been extremely tough. “You should become a CASA in Austin!” she said.

I smiled. I think it’s time I switch gears. So, I’m currently on the hunt for a new volunteer effort. And tomorrow, I think YOU should help me explore my options. I’ll see you there!