Fourteen-year-old Carly Hay likes to put what she’s feeling into dancing.
“So when you get to dance about things that have been hard or you struggle with, it’s like getting the feelings out of your body,” she said.
“Like when you breathe out air, you’re letting that air go. So when you dance, that bottled up emotions or things you haven’t told people or inner feelings, you’re kind of letting it go and be seen for what it is.”
“Kids These Days” is like a massive exhale for Hay.
The 75-minute show, running Friday and Saturday at the Lincoln Performing Arts School, is the latest offering from Louisville modern and contemporary dance company Ambo Dance Theatre. It’s about the universal challenges of adolescence, but goes on to address issues that have become almost absurdly routine for this generation, like school shootings or social media’s constant presence in teens’ lives.
Members of Ambo’s professional company and founder and artistic director Amberly Simpson helped fine tune the work, which features more than a dozen middle and high schoolers. But it’s the students’ experience, and largely their choreography, driving it.
Hay said that’s given her more agency in the process, and it’s been powerful.
“There’s no way to avoid finding the core of somebody because you see it in the dance that they make,” she said.
Putting movement to words that can be hard to say
Every section starts as a conversation.
Sofia Ritchie is one of the dancers in a segment about being a young person of color in America. The 15-year-old said discussions the dancers had before choreography started helped her realize she’s not alone.
“To talk about it and see that it was such a universal experience is just so comforting to hear, but at the same time devastating because they’re heavy topics that no kid, I think, should have to endure, really anyone,” she said.
The talks get the dancers to a vulnerable place, so together they can create something real.
Rylan Cole, 13, said that can be uncomfortable, but necessary.
“I think we have the right conversations, and we’re comfortable enough with each other to be able to put on something very vulnerable and put it on stage,” Cole said. “But some of these things need to be talked about.”
The show is made up of longer movements, solos, duets and shorter vignettes, including one about LGBTQ identity as a teenager.
Another section reflects on drills that teach students how to survive a mass shooting.
“We’ve had to do these drills over and over again, for years and years,” dancer Scout Tarquinio, 15, said.
The portion called “Neither Distract, Nor Disrupt” looks at school dress code enforcement – the title is lifted from the language of a real student handbook. Dancers pull outfits on and off over their dancewear. The articles of clothing are pieces they’ve received real-life dress code violations for.
“It’s not necessarily the dress codes and how they’re written themselves that are the issue,” Ritchie said. “It’s the way they’re enforced, especially in middle school and high school.”
It all comes back to mental health, the unifying theme.
“We have adults saying, truly saying, ‘Man, kids these days are just so sensitive.’ We’re not sensitive,” Ritchie said. “We’re trying to create change.”
Kids these days have a lot to say
The purpose of the show isn’t to have all of the answers. It’s to be heard
“Hopefully this can be an outlet to show [adults] how we feel and what goes on in our lives each and every day,” said 14-year-old Madalyn Durst.
Scout Tarquinio hopes the performance will nudge adults to be more accepting of “their own family members and who they are and how they identify and how they present themselves.”
Seventeen-year-old Vivian O. has a clear message for the audience: “We are stronger than most people take us for.”
“We have been through a global pandemic,” she said. “We have survived school shootings. We have survived a lot of things that they have never seen.”
Rylan Cole said this is “our generation’s story, so I think it’s important to us.”
“There are still things that go on in society that hurt younger people, and we’re not less competent and unable to speak on it,” Cole said. “We just get shunned from saying what we truly feel.”
And this generation can’t address all of these challenges, including big societal issues like the climate crisis and racial equity, all on their own, said Sofia Ritchie.
“We have a voice and, yes, we have a certain power. But we are not in office yet. A lot of us cannot vote yet. I know I can’t,” she said. “We need adults and the older generations to be on board with us.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.
This story has been updated.