The high school years are hectic, aren’t they? Standardized tests, first dates, college applications, founding non-profit organizations… Wait, what was that last part?
When Christina Ricucci and Jake Tribus met at a New York City Dance Alliance event over two years ago, the creative sparks began to fly. Both sophomores in high school at the time, juggling the often-conflicting responsibilities of teenagers and professional dancers, they had plenty of commitments to keep them busy straight through graduation (a milestone for which they are now preparing). But a mission larger than their own complicated lives was calling on them, and together, they set out to achieve it.
“My mom and I had been talking about this concept for a while,” says Ricucci. “I wanted to form a group of dancers dedicated to inspiring others and showing compassion without judgment through performance, education and the support of like-minded charities. I mentioned the idea to Jake one day, and that was it. We decided to found Artists Giving Hope [AGH] together.”
The basic premise behind AGH — that empathy, integrity and the desire to do good are free, and entirely compatible with the goals of many artists — developed, in part, in reaction to the overly competitive (and occasionally negative) atmosphere that sometimes seems to shroud the dance world. Ricucci and Tribus knew that this energy could easily be altered for the better if dancers were made aware of the power of the creative community to which they belong and of their personal capacity to spin their passion in a positive direction. With that in mind, one of the first initiatives AGH established was to offer workshops promoting its constructive ideals.
“We teach dancers to build each other up, cheer each other on, and emphasize everyone’s strengths,” Tribus explains. “It is important to the AGH team that all dancers feel special, and that everyone has a unique and individual voice. Once the environment in which you are dancing becomes open and positive, the possibilities are endless, and you feel ready and willing to explore farther with others.”
The basic value of these workshops for young dancers, whether they have professional aspirations or are simply drawn to the joy of the art form, is plain to see. But these events often feature an additional component that helps participants to understand the tangible difference their art can make in the lives of others. Last December, for instance, Tribus and a fellow AGH team member traveled to Vermont to lead a multi-studio workshop that doubled as a holiday canned food drive for a local food bank. In addition, the fees from the event fed back into AGH, to be distributed amongst the causes it regularly finances.
One of those charities is Dancers Fighting Cancer, an Alabama-based organization founded by cancer survivor Alex Swader in 2009, when he was just nine years old. Both Tribus and Ricucci cite Swader’s annual Tapping Out Childhood Cancer Gala as their most rewarding collaborative project, the proceeds from which go directly toward research conducted at the Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s of Alabama.
“We’ve performed and led workshops there for two years now,” Ricucci relates. “So many people come out in support, and kids from the hospital get to come down and watch. To see them enjoying dance — it’s so special.”
As it happens, Ricucci has first-hand experience with the importance of community compassion during times of illness. Late in 2014, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, an often-misidentified bacterial infection that causes a broad spectrum of symptoms ranging from extreme fatigue and muscle weakness to migraines and vertigo. Ricucci had been training, performing and touring through physical pain and mental disorientation for over a year before she had to stop dancing entirely and undergo intensive treatment. In the midst of her struggle, she received an outpouring of support from her friends and fans, who collectively raised over $5,000 to aid in her recovery. Even a boutique dance supply company, B. Brand Apparel, got involved, offering 100 percent of the proceeds from sales of a “Be Kind” tank top to the cause.
In a 2015 interview with Dance Spirit, Ricucci recalled, “When I announced on Instagram that I was being treated for Lyme, I received so much support. I felt really loved, and I’m so thankful. At first I was terrified to tell people; I didn’t know if they’d make fun of me, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was asking for sympathy.” But once she returned to health, she said, “I saw what I went through and realized I could help other people by raising awareness about the disease.”
Today, having built AGH membership to over 30 professional and pre-professional dancers living throughout the country, Ricucci and Tribus look to increase their reach by branching into other artistic disciplines, such as theater and music. “I also like to sing and act,” says Ricucci. “When we first launched Artists Giving Hope, we talked about exploring other art forms, as well. The opportunity to work with people outside this community would be really different and challenging.”
Such expansion could also facilitate one of the organization’s long-term goals: to fully fund a dance-related dream for a child with a life-threatening medical condition through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Past wishes in the dance field have included sending a teenager whose dance aspirations were curtailed by non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to a live taping of Dancing with the Stars, during which she actually danced with one of the stars; teaching a five-year-old girl with a heart condition to hula in Hawaii; and importing an Italian prince to waltz with a cystic fibrosis survivor (in a castle!) on her 11th birthday.
“We have been told that these wishes [can] require between $10,000 and $25,000 to fulfill,” Tribus says. “AGH would love to have a large fundraising show where we could include many dancers and choreographers, singers, actors, et cetera, to raise money to support this wish.”
For the immediate future, however, Tribus and Ricucci are focused on the logistical hurdle of keeping AGH on a forward trajectory as they transition into their college careers. Although they have yet to determine where that next life phase will take them geographically, their vision and motivation remain firmly grounded in the people who encouraged them from day one.
“Jake’s mom and my mom were amazing in helping us get everything started. For me, the inspiration behind all this really comes from my parents,” Ricucci shares. “Our message is to act with kindness and acceptance, and they show me those things every day.”
For more on Artists Giving Hope, visit artistsgivinghope.com.
By Leah Gerstenlauer of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Jake Tribus. Photo courtesy of AGH. Christina Ricucci. Photo by David Hoffman.