Kids Dance Outreach, a not-for-profit arts and dance education organization, is primarily focused on serving the children of Indianapolis. Founded by artistic director Michael J. Johnson in 2012, KDO has brought a variety of dance classes to over 17,000 elementary students in local public and charter schools. With more than 80 percent of participants on the free or reduced-price lunch program, and 70 percent from minority families, all of KDO’s programming is free of charge for students.
“We want to bring high-quality arts education to all children and not let it remain as only for the privileged,” says Johnson, who understands the impact dance classes can have on a child’s development. When he and his brothers were young, they were given scholarships to dance at the School of Richmond Ballet, which Johnson credited for keeping them focused and out of trouble. After a successful career performing principal roles with Boston Ballet and teaching at his alma mater, Butler University, Johnson was asked to lead an outreach class and realized his passion for introducing dance to underserved children.
According to Johnson, the impact KDO has had on kids in Indianapolis has been astounding to the teachers they have partnered with. Students in the program have an increased ability to focus, improvements in behavior, and greater academic success. “This program is about so much more than just dance,” says Johnson. “Dance is only our vehicle to connect, motivate, and communicate with the children.” With the help of executive director Mónica M. Muñoz and a team of instructors and live musicians, KDO has grown from working in one school in its founding year to 17 in 2023.
Johnson shared with Dance Teacher what he’s learned since starting KDO and his tips for creating a successful dance outreach program.
What advice would you like to share with other dance educators interested in starting an outreach program in their city?
You need to buckle yourself in and be super-determined and super-resilient. Very early on somebody said to me, “No school is going to let you do that here in Indiana. Nobody is going to fund you. What’s your backup plan?” That just made me more determined. We never created a plan B. We held steadfast to our mission and here we are. You have to have grit and persistence if you’re going to start a not-for-profit from the ground up.
What have you learned about fundraising since founding KDO in 2012?
It’s been a challenge, because we don’t have glamorous galas for fundraising. We’re working with public-school and charter-school children—most families have economic challenges. We don’t do black-tie dinner events, which means it’s hard to get the attention of the individuals that do have significant means and could support a program like ours. If we get those people who could support us into the room to see what these children are actually accomplishing—that’s the game changer. They say, “This is amazing, I want to support this and I want to bring five or seven friends to come see this.” That’s the magic—seeing the children and how inspiring it is.
What qualities do you look for when hiring teaching artists, staff members, or musicians for KDO?
All staff have to understand that everything we do is in service to the children. It’s not about my personal dream, my choreography, or my company. It’s about creating movement that’s challenging, fun, and achievable for children so they can work on something and grow from it. We look for people who are willing to have empathy and learn and consider the background of a child. We do professional development a lot. KDO is a prevention partner with the Indiana Department of Child Services. As such we participate in training, seminars, and other initiatives that educate our staff and advance children’s well-being. If we don’t understand the children we’re working with, how can we best serve them?
What’s your vision for the future of KDO?
I would love to have our own facility. A place dedicated for the children, for their classes and rehearsals. A safe place for them to be after school—a place designed and dedicated for the benefit of the children. Right now, we don’t have that. We’re renting places and it’s not always ideal, so we need funds for a building.