Words by Martha Carucci Photography courtesy of ArtSpireVA INSPIRING, UPLIFTING & HEALING THROUGH DANCE
Those who know Gennifer Difilippo say that if she could spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week helping others, she would. She works tirelessly to share her passion for dance and the arts, especially with those who would otherwise not have a chance to experience it. In 2015, after years of teaching dance, Difilippo started ArtSpire VA, “a multi-faceted non-profit organization that provides scholarships for youth to experience the fine and performing arts and inspires, uplifts and heals those in need through dance performances.”
Difilippo said that ArtSpire VA came to be on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when she took a group of girls to dance at a convention for women who were survivors of domestic abuse. There, she saw the intense connection between the audience and the dancers. The girls realized that there was a bigger meaning to what they were doing and that they could inspire people who were struggling in life. Hence, ArtSpire VA was born, and its motto became “Inspiration Through the Arts.”
The group’s greatest achievement to date involved Maddie Davis, a little girl battling cancer. Difilippo’s dancers performed at an event called CureFest DC and connected with Maddie and her family, taking Maddie under their wing. “The girls fell in love with Maddie instantly,” Difilippo explained. They invited her to perform in the Alexandria Community Nutcracker and Maddie took part in the party scene. One of the ArtSpire VA dancers, Rylie Heiser, shared, “I started dancing for #teammaddie a few years ago and it is the most memorable chapter I have experienced. I vividly remember her constant look of optimism and her bright smile that I couldn't take my eyes off. My favorite moment with Maddie was when I got to take her on stage with me in the Nutcracker and her excitement to dance outweighed every emotion on stage that night and I am so grateful to have had her in my life.” Maddie passed away from cancer during the pandemic but left an ineffable mark on so many lives.
Another facet of ArtSpire VA is its scholarship program, which Difilippo started when she coached the West Potomac High School Dance Team. She realized that when students came to try out, many didn’t have training or dance shoes and didn’t return the next day. She hated to see them leave discouraged, saying that most of them just needed guidance. Difilippo saw a problem that needed to be addressed, changed and fixed. She saw that there were so many kids in our own community without opportunities to learn from a professional teacher, dancer, musician or artist. To date, over five-hundred scholarships have been awarded with money raised from donations and fundraisers. The scholarships pay for an entire year of dance lessons and any other things the students can’t afford such as tights, shoes, leotards, etc. The scholarships also cover recital fees, costumes and tickets for the parents. “We don’t want these kids to look or feel different and we want them to have the complete and total experience that other students have.” Several scholarship program students have performed in the Alexandria Community Nutcracker and no one can tell the difference between them and the students who have been formally trained for longer periods of time. “At the end of the day, they are dance students. They are artists themselves,” Difilippo shared.
ArtSpire VA also began an Art Supply Bag program, providing over 2,500 art supply bags to students who had nothing to use while at home during the pandemic. Difilippo heard from an art teacher that while she was trying to teach watercolors online during COVID, many students on the screen just sat there because they didn’t have any paper or paint supplies. Difilippo believed that this disparity needed to be addressed and that it fell under the scholarship's mission of “the Arts for All.”
Difilippo shared that “being part of a theater group, dance team, orchestra, etc. helps students and youth be part of something that can maybe help them get into college or further a career. Research has shown that kids who are part of teams or in the arts do so much better in school.” Thanks to Difilippo and her passion and tireless efforts, so many more young students will have opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have to shine and inspire themselves and others. “Artspire VA, I cannot thank you enough for putting a smile on our kids' faces. providing them with supplies to help get them through these tough times when they were already dealing with so much is truly a blessing. Art is an incredible source of mindfulness and therapy, and I cannot thank you enough. Artspire is such an artspiration - cheesy but real! It is because of you that some of our neediest families and kiddos have hope, trust, belonging, resilience [and] encouragement to say the least...”
- Nicole, Counselor, Francis C Hammond middle school