Up in the air
Alumna reaches out to teens through aerial arts
Nicole Mermans (MBA ’01) is driving toward Atlanta’s Avondale Middle School on a Friday afternoon in February when her cell phone rings.
“Hello? Hey. I’m on my way. I’ll be there in like 5 minutes.”
A few minutes later Keyvious Avery, 12, gets in the car. Normally Avery’s mother would pick him up, but she’s having car trouble so Mermans is pinch hitting. That works well because Avery is headed to The D’AIR Project, a dance and aerial arts studio founded by Mermans.
Located in a renovated former church in Grant Park, the D’AIR space has 20 foot ceilings that make it possible for students to work on aerial equipment like dance trapeze, circus trapeze, fabrics, lyra and rope. D’AIR offers community classes, outreach programs and aerial dance theater productions staged by its in-house professional company, but one of the nonprofit’s primary missions is serving and empowering youth and teens.
“My passion has always been working with teens,” Mermans says. “I just really like that age.”
Avery is one of two dozen kids enrolled in D’AIR’s teen program. The teens attend after-school classes twice a week and perform in shows, including productions with partners like HERO for Children and the International Rescue Committee. The program is free, but the students earn their aerial privileges by cleaning and doing administrative chores at the studio. This levels the playing field—their access is dependent on their commitment, not their parents’ ability to pay.
Mermans first encountered this model at Zip Zap, a youth outreach circus program in South Africa where she spent a few months as an artist in residence in late 2005 and early 2006. She came home energized and ready to start a studio that would combine the student-earned model of Zip Zap and the community-oriented model of Canopy, the Athens studio where Mermans first fell in love with aerial arts.
“I saw how it could just change lives,” she says. “It was really transformative for me personally. I thought if it could do that for me, what could it do for kids and teens at such a critical junction in their lives?”
So with help from Mermans’ longtime aerial partner Andrea Fors (BS ’02, MSW ’05), The D’AIR Project (Dream, Accept, Inspire, Revolutionize) was born.
This evening, the teens join Avery for one of their semimonthly meetings. They begin with chores—taking out the trash, changing the water cooler filter, mopping the floors—before Mermans and Fors lead them in a brainstorming session for their next show. They write ideas on index cards, and each is given careful consideration.
“You definitely see some of the shyer ones gain confidence because everyone is so supportive of each other,” Fors says. “When they realize that it’s just a completely supportive environment, they feel safe here. And then they start to blossom as an individual, and their personalities really come out.”
The teens themselves recognize that participating in D’AIR has affected them.
“I’m really not a social person,” says Helena Baldwin, 15. “I never really was, but The D’AIR Project has helped with that a lot. It’s easier to interact with people.”
Avery has been writing poetry and short stories as long as he can remember, but now he thinks of himself as a dancer too.
“I think in dancing you can express yourself more and have a closer connection with people than in soccer or golf,” he says. “When you’re dancing, you’re telling either your story or someone else’s story.”
Learning to work with others and expressing yourself through dance can have additional consequences, Mermans says.
“Within short amounts of time you can really see yourself achieve amazing goals. I think that does a huge thing for somebody’s confidence and translates to other parts of their lives,” she says. “And it’s fun!”