|The show is a collection of loosely related scenes, some clearly symbolic of the dynamics of bullying. (Photos By George Rizer for The Boston Globe)|
Their steps to acceptance
Teen dancers have been on both sides of bullying problem
BRIDGEWATER — The sweeping beauty of modern dance might have turned Ericka Consolmagno around if the hardships of life had not done so first.
Consolmagno went from being popular to feeling isolated when, as she finished eighth grade, few of the friends she knew from her Catholic school chose the same high school. But not until dancing in “Accept Me,’’ staged this month at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School, did she reflect more closely on her past as a bully and her transition to the role of being a victim of bullying herself.
Consolmagno is one of more than 60 dancers, ages 6 to 18, to appear in the show, produced by the Gold School, a dance academy in Brockton.
The older students researched bullying to help director and studio owner Rennie Gold create a production designed to teach the dancers, as well as the audience. The show is a collection of loosely related scenes, some clearly symbolic of the dynamics of bullying, others pure, colorful movement.
To share the lessons of the show with other students, Gold said, he would like to do more performances, but his students cannot miss too much school. He hopes to make a DVD that schools can show as part of their antibullying curricula.
His students say they believe the show could help other young people.
“This whole experience, for the whole studio as a group, has been really eye-opening,’’ said Consolmagno, 18, of Randolph.
“I started to become aware of when I was younger, I was sort of a bully,’’ she said. Consolmagno said she remembers how, before ninth grade, she ignored another girl so blatantly that Consolmagno would turn away if the girl spoke to her.
But in the musical-chairs game of high school friendship, Consolmagno was the one left standing. Then, as Consolmagno took a new interest in her faith and its values, that, too, made her a target.
“You never know what it’s like until you’re on the other side,’’ she said.
Gold hoped that the show would be eye-opening for the audience, as well. He learned from talking about the issue with his students that many of them had been bullied, in many different ways.
“We called them rap sessions, where we would talk about it, me and the cast,’’ he said.
To demonstrate the gravity of the problem, Gold and the older students wanted to incorporate into the production the story of a suicide attributed to bullying. He asked them to do some research.
“A week later they came back, and the first story was Kyle’s,’’ said Gold, recalling the research brought to the group by Kyle Scanlan, 16, a Brockton High School junior. “He was telling Matt Epling’s story, and within 30 seconds I was crying.’’
The Michigan teenager took his life in 2002 at age 14, the night before he and his family planned to go to police about an incident the family describes as an assault by upperclassmen engaging in hazing.
While Gold was developing the show, he and the students held a Skype session with Matt’s father, Kevin Epling. For Scanlan, Epling’s discussion of bystanders versus “upstanders,’’ people who stand up for the bullying victim, made him recognize his own behavior when, as a boy as young as 4 or 6, he noticed people looking oddly at his mother, who walks with a limp. He would give them looks in return, until his mother discovered what he was doing.
“I was an upstander,’’ he said. “Bullying doesn’t just happen to teenagers or to middle school kids or kids in general.’’
Scanlan endured a few isolated incidents himself, one when he was on a swing set at school and was jumped by five children wielding rulers and pencils, and a teacher did nothing, he said. Another time, in third grade, when he moved and told other children that he danced, some of them said dance was for girls, but a friend stood up for him.
Bullying, he said, is “something that’s accepted in our society today, as something that toughens us. But it’s not something anyone should have to go through, because it’s just not right.’’
After participating in the show and hearing his peers’ stories, Scanlan now believes that bullies have something in common with the people they bully: emotional pain. They cause pain for others because of the pain they feel, he said. “The two people are so similar.’’
The show includes a dance dedicated to Matt Epling. His father attended both performances, and he and Gold took questions from the audience.
The show also featured a video message from Kenny Wormald, a Gold School graduate who hails from Stoughton, is a professional dancer, and has been cast in the Kevin Bacon role in a remake of “Footloose’’ due out this year. In the video, Wormald talks about being picked on for dancing, a common problem for boys.
Gold, too, was bullied. When he was growing up in Randolph, he said, he was called gay and antigay slurs because he was a dancer. He was spat on, beaten up, and kicked and once was hit on the head with a two-by-four, he said.
These days, even if the boys are not treated poorly, they have to face other people’s insinuations that if they dance, they must be gay. One girl at the school who was dating a male dancer was ridiculed, based on the idea that her boyfriend would “turn out to be gay,’’ Gold said.
Another girl, 12-year-old Kaylee Millis of Plympton, remembers being bullied about her looks and because she did not want to do the third-grade equivalent of dating.
“I was the dorky kid who always wanted to learn,’’ she said.
Millis recalls enduring verbal and physical abuse and being afraid to go to school. Another trial was yet to come. In sixth grade, she experienced the death of a close friend, an older girl who was like a big sister to her.
She went to school teary-eyed, but instead of comforting her, other children hounded her for the details.
Being in “Accept Me’’ has helped her to deal with both the loss and the bullying, Millis said. “Finally I have that warmth in my heart, and I can be happy and still carry [her] around with me.’’
State law mandates antibullying training in the public schools, but Gold said traditional programs do not always work. His students have told him that students text one another during assemblies to make fun of the presenters.
His show is different, he said, because children send the message. However, he has discovered that spreading the message is not easy.
“I came in here so naïve, thinking everybody would want to do something on this,’’ he said.
But the venues have their own requirements, like no mention of antigay bullying at some churches and no use of the word suicide at some schools.
The cast is tentatively scheduled to perform a shorter version of the show on May 20 at Old Rochester Regional Junior High School in Mattapoisett. Principal Kevin Brogioli said a member of his staff is negotiating with Gold in an effort to have one of the scenes place less emphasis on suicide.
Gold said a number of his students feel that nothing meaningful is being done to stop bullying at their schools.
“I just want people to do something about it,’’ he said. “. . . It seems so simple to me.’’
Jennette Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.