In Honor of KeKe

I received the sad news that one of my theater campers in Arizona, KeKe, died in her sleep. This is so tragic, so devastating, so hard to process, so heavy in our hearts. I learned this just as I was heading to Denney for a full day of performances and experienced some true panic about if I could compartmentalize what I was feeling enough to be fully present with the kids. I drove on up, a little slower, with a foggy brain, an aching heart, and an (almost) defeated, exhausted spirit, wishing I could comfort my wife, my friends, so many young people in Arizona…

Once I got there, it didn’t take me long to realize that at that moment, Denney was exactly where I needed to be. These kids were exactly who I needed to be with. Dancing was exactly what I needed to do.

Just before the performance, I learned that one of the kids I’ve been doing private lessons with hasn’t had a single visitor in his MANY months at Denney. He performed a duet with me, full of anxiety but bursting with natural talent, athleticism, and adrenaline. He reached out to give me a high five afterward and I swung my arm around to hug him. I asked if that was okay, and he smiled and said “Yeah!” That was the first of five hugs we exchanged yesterday.

After the first show, I sat in one of the classrooms and made cards for all the performers. On his card, I told him how proud I was of him, how much it meant that he trusted me enough to perform a dance with me, that he was worthy of my trust, and that I was so grateful to know him. That there was so much love and appreciation in my heart for him. After the second show, I passed out the cards, and before he even opened it he quickly turned around and said “Emmy! You’re the first person to ever think of me!” He opened it, then sat there looking at the card, reading and re-reading it for a few minutes. Then he looked down the line of chairs and said, “Thank you, Emmy.” I walked over to hug him and he opened his arms up before I even got there. This… is a big deal.

I’ve thought a lot about what he said. It was such an interesting thing to say, and he said it before he even opened the card. It meant so much for him to get a card, even before he knew whether it was specific or generic or just a drawing. I think all the kids know how much I love being there and how proud I am of them, but I think HE felt LOVED. And I think he really trusts me.

There are so many moments I could share about the performance. All of the kids did an incredible job. They were so brave, so willing to be vulnerable, so proud of themselves… so loving. But I think this experience with this specific kid really saved me that day. I realized today that he actually reminds me a bit of KeKe, who took a while to warm up to me the first year she came to camp. She seemed so angry, even mean at times. She had a big wall that was hard to climb over. Her trust didn’t come easy, but… we saw it come.

Last year she wrote a poem about going to jail. She described walking out in handcuffs and shackles, seeing her family’s eyes full of tears. She talked about the system of destruction. She memorized it and then asked me for some choreography for the end of it. She said she wanted to be brave and try new things. She volunteered to do a parkour inspired piece. She defied gender roles and flipped a guy in her group on stage. She asked for help when she needed it. She came back this year to offer help to new campers.

Some days feel so hopeless and heavy. Sometimes it feels like I should be doing more practical things. Sometimes kids die and I don’t know what I should be doing at all.

What I do know is that a kid I’ve danced with the last several months told me that no one has ever thought of him. And while that feels absolutely impossible, apparently no one has come to visit him… not a single person. That kid was hard to get to know at first, but on performance day we hugged five times. Who knows how long it has been since he’s been hugged or told he is loved. I got to do that, and I know it meant something real to him. That matters, that matters, that matters.

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