Bringing the gift of dance to children in St. Augustine

By Holly Hearn

Many dancers begin their experience in similar ways. They stand as a toddler in a studio on marley flooring as they grip the barres, stickers on their shoes telling their rights from lefts.

For Cristina Duncan, it started more untraditionally: With her participation in a volunteer dance program held in her church.

Because of that chance to find her way into dance through a volunteer program, she now gives countless underprivileged children across St. Augustine access to dance.

When Duncan had her first child at 16, her life was changed completely, but this change is what brought her to where she is now.  She was put on government assistance but still wanted to give back to her community, which is what led her to begin a neighborhood dance program as a side hustle.

It began with nine students but took off quickly as word began to spread.

The program, called Gift of Dance, now serves 230 students across 14 elementary schools, one preschool, three community centers, group homes through St. Augustine Youth Services and most recently, the St. Augustine Youth Crisis Center.

“I want to serve people that wouldn’t have access to dance had we not come to their community, their preschool, or their elementary school. That kind of has stayed without me even realizing it. Serving people that couldn’t get their kids to a studio 5 days a week,” Duncan said.

The benefits of dance for children are notable. According to a study by Frontiers in Physiology, children involved in dance gain a wider range of motor development, which also aids in psychological development as motor skills allow the child to move around and explore their environment.

A goal of Duncan’s work is to provide an outlet for her students who are facing hardships. The same study showed improvements in symptoms of somatization, OCD, depression, anxiety and more, which indicates the benefits that dance can have on the students that she is helping.

This is why dance is important to countless people, however, a program such as Gift of Dance takes that further.

The moment Duncan knew Gift of Dance was needed in the community was in 2019 when she walked into Webster Elementary School. Webster has its own studio space; however, it was not being used at the time.

Duncan saw the student’s faces light up and knew she was in the right place. She felt like she could encourage her students to work hard and bringing these students into a real studio was something she knew her students needed.

The foundation of Duncan’s work is helping those around her. She is currently preparing for the Gift of Dance’s spring recital, held May 4 at Tocoi Creek High School, which involves lots of her day-to-day work.

She looks at each dancer’s costume to make sure they all fit properly and to make sure they do not have any issues and make any needed alterations. She also makes a point of meeting with her teachers and making sure to check in on what they need and how they are doing.

“I love working for Cristina,” Gift of Dance instructor Kelsey Walsh said. “She has opened my eyes in a professional point of view, but also personally. She always emphasizes the importance of being a good role model. She is selfless and ambitious, which makes her a good role model to not only her students but her employees. She has taught me so much I will forever carry with me.”

The idea of being a role model is truly reflected in the way that she treats her employees and the opportunities she provides for her students. She is always more than willing to treat her employees to dinner or coffee and makes sure she builds strong relationships with them to support them and their work.

She sets up as many opportunities for her students to dance, such as recitals, community charity events and partnering with the Dance Team at Flagler College to participate in their showcase and attending the basketball games they perform at to watch some of their own teachers and the rest of the team perform. Her goal is to make everyone happy and continue to have dance be an outlet for her students and teachers.

Duncan has been expanding her work every day. Along with teaching, she is still taking dance classes herself.

When she first began teaching years ago, she was worried that her skillset would not be enough for the elementary students that she would be teaching. While she was very nervous, saying that she was asking God to have them all be younger, she recently agreed to partner with the Youth Crisis Center and teach students aged 11-18.

She is always growing with her work and expanding her artistry. Duncan will never own a traditional studio, as she believes dance is healing, particularly for children facing poverty and other challenging things that aren’t their fault.

“Just knowing my personal story and knowing that I will be okay, I know that they’re going to be okay,” she said. “If we can add a little positivity and a little light to their dark times, that’s what I want to do.”

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