Up With People Gets Up Close to Downtown Community

March 13, 2012

By Teya Vitu

If you didn’t look too close, you may not have noticed that a dozen Tucson senior citizens were dancing with the cast of Up With People.

Seniors at the Armory Center dancing with the Up With People cast.

No, these seniors did not share the 2ndSaturday stage with Up With People, nor will they dance with the young international cast at the March 16 performance at the University of Arizona Student Union Ballroom,

Instead, the seniors did salsa moves and Bahamian Junkanoo dances in line with the Up With People crew at the Armory Park Senior Center.

Audiences know Up With People from their spectacular staged shows, but most of the cast’s time in Tucson is spent offstage, and that’s where these 120 young adults from 21 counties make even more impact on the local community.

Up With People dispatched 30 performers to the Armory Center, another 20 to Ben’s Bells, 30 to Imago Dei Middle School, and others elsewhere in Tucson.

Most of the seniors kept pace quite well with the grand-kid-aged Up With People dancers.

“I love to dance, to learn new moves,” said Arlene Lopez, who comes by the Armory Center two or three times a week.

Up With People’s community service projects don’t often involve dance. More often they engage in cross-cultural communication, diversity and values workshops as they did at Imago Dei Middle School.

But dancing is as much a cultural expression as the more weighty volunteering gigs.

The Armory Center seniors were lead by Up With People’s dance captain, Miguel Samaniego, a Tucson native who has toured with the group since 2008.

“It’s great,” Samaniego said. “I get to bring the world to my little home town. It ends up being a dance party.”

The dancers, age 19 to 29, spent the greater part of a day with Armory Center seniors. They served lunch and chatted with the seniors. The young performers from around the world tap into a side of these seniors that center staff don’t otherwise see.

“We’re so amazed,” said Jerry Neely, the center’s assistant director. “We didn’t know our seniors are so well traveled. Up With People has people from all over the world. We have seniors that have been all over the world. This gives them an opportunity to share their experiences.”

Another Up With People group sat around a wooden table at Ben’s Bells new studio in Tucson’s second oldest building, the Charles O. Brown House. They were tasked with crafting small, rectangular clay liner tiles that will become part of a mural on the utility stub at One South Church (formerly the UniSource Energy Tower).

Up With People and Ben’s Bells both are all about positive messages, Up With People through performance and Ben’s Bells through hanging small ceramic bells dedicated to kindness.

“I think it’s a great project,” said Kelly Arthur, an Up With People performer from La Cañada-Flintridge, California. “I love the idea of it and the message it sends.”

Kelly Arthur carrying a tray of clay slabs that will be fired into black liner tiles for a Ben's Bells mural.

Up With People’s arrival in Tucson was perfect timing for Ben’s Bells, which had just gotten designs for the tile mural that will be installed in April.

“Bam! We knew we could get it done with Up With People working on the mural,” said Jeannette Maré, executive director at Ben’s Bells. “We have a big surge of work getting done.”

Up With People cast members sweep into a project like an army.

“We can do work pretty fast because we come with so many people,” Arthur said. “We are important for organizations who need to get work done fast.”

Clara Rodriguez Aliberas has become a convert to community service in her eight months touring with Up With People.

“When I was back home in Spain, I never did volunteer work,” said Aliberas, who joined Up With People for the performing rather than the serving. “Now my favorite part is the volunteer work.”

Aliberas’s and her compatriots’ work on mural tiles will be seen by all who come Downtown.

“It’s like starting a chain,” Aliberas said. “It’s like putting your own little touch into the mural.”

Clara Rodriguez Aliberas making clay slabs for a mural being made by Ben's Bells.

Up With People, which was founded in Tucson in 1968, evolved into a touring performance troupe where the international young leaders also develop global perspective, intercultural understanding, leadership skills and a dedication to community service.

Audience and community members get to learn about young people from around the world, but, conversely, each service project also adds to the worldliness of the Up With People cast.

“The cast members get a lot out of it,” said Veronika Westermark, Up With People’s international promotion representative and a native of Sweden. “It really helps you open your eyes.”