In its first funded year, Instruments of Culture and Agents of Change: Performing Arts Training as a Vehicle for Empowerment and Wellbeing among Alabama Youth offered a 12-week pilot program to students at Central High School in Tuscaloosa, AL. In the first four weeks of the program, participants engaged in a series of physical and psychological assessments, and in a set of activities that encouraged them to reflect on their lives and on the relationships and systems in which their lives are embedded – family, peers, and community. Those reflections were used to derive a set of themes: foundations, aspirations, and sources of joy. The remaining eight weeks were spent in dance and vocal performance training to build physical and aural skills as a vehicle for exploring the aforementioned themes through vocalization and movement. Participants were guided in repertoire selection and invention of song and dance forms according to a culturally responsive pedagogy. The program culminated in a cabaret performance for family, friends, and community members at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center.

Despite a small sample size, the early findings are promising. Anthropometrics indicate that allostatic load was likely reduced (hormone assays are still in progress)—participants lost weight, built muscle, and experienced reduced blood pressure. In addition, their scores on the Perceived Stress Scale were much lower than at initial assessment. Results from the EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Well-Being indicate increased feelings of perseverance, optimism, connectedness, and happiness. 


Courtney Helfrecht, Assistant Professor, Anthropology;

Stephanie McClure, Assistant Professor, Anthropology;

Alexis Davis-Hazell, Assistant Professor, Music;

Alvon Reed, Assistant Professor, Theatre and Dance