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Talia Bailes ’20, founder of Ballet and Books, leads a class at the Southside Community Center Oct. 26.


Most Saturdays during the school year, 4-year-old Gemma Phipps heads to the Southside Community Center with her mom to practice her arabesques, her plies – and her reading skills.

Phipps is one of 32 children participating in Ballet and Books, a program organized by Talia Bailes ’20, who’s studying global and public health sciences in the College of Human Ecology. Bailes started the program, now in its third year, to boost literacy among children from pre-K through third grade.

Amanda Hernandez ’21 reads to a Ballet and Books class at the Southside Community Center Oct. 26.

Bailes danced and taught during high school, and then spent a year after high school teaching young students in Ecuador. She came back interested in child development and literacy, so she worked in a pediatrician’s lab in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, where she learned more about how literacy, race, poverty and other factors affected children’s health.

“I really believe in community engagement so when I came to Cornell, I was looking for ways to get involved and I started working with Southside,” she said. “I wondered how I could be an agent of change and combine the development of children’s minds with dance.”

Southside leaders were excited about the idea, especially matching their young students with college and high school mentors.

Each Saturday, the 3- to 5-year-olds take part in an hour of dance fused with literacy activities. Older kids, ages 6-9, dance for 45 minutes, followed by 45 minutes of reading and movement with mentors from both Cornell and Ithaca College, as well as Ithaca High School.

On a recent Saturday, the young ballet students learned a routine from the Cornell Phenomenon Step Team, then showed off their own routine, which they will perform Nov. 23 in a show at the Tompkins County Public Library. In the spring, the students in the program will perform on the Bailey Hall stage, as part of the Pandora Dance Troupe’s spring concert.

“I got into reading at a late age and I feel like it would have been so much better for me to have been exposed at a young age,” said Liz Rurangwa ’20, a biology major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who works with the young dancers.

“I’m really passionate about working with kids, so I started as a mentor,” said Judy Liu ’21, a human development major in the College of Human Ecology who said the program helps with more than just dance and reading skills. “When I was little, I was shy, and I see that reading aloud really builds up confidence in these kids. And seeing someone in college who looks like you helps these kids realize they can achieve great things.”

Community partners include BodyGear, the Children’s Reading Connection, the Family Reading Partnership, the Ithaca City School District and the Tompkins County Public Library.

After dance and reading time, Gemma Phipps shows off her steps and her routine. Her mom, Meryl Phipps, said she is happy to perform her dance for any visitor.

“There are a lot of dance studios in town, but this one is much more accessible financially and culturally for all families,” Phipps said. “I also love that the teachers are college students because they are such good role models.”

Although Bailes is graduating in the spring, the Cornell chapter of Ballet and Books plans to continue, with younger students ready to take over. Bailes also hopes to expand the organization to cities in Florida and New Jersey. She’s been receiving help with this effort from Blackstone LaunchPad and Entrepreneurship at Cornell.




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