Divas of Compton

Magdalena Wosinska
Cordelia Speed

If you caught the Divas of Compton’s performance on America’s Got Talent you will have been blown away by the overwhelming energy and passion of the dancers. What is tenfold more extraordinary, however, is the story behind the creation of the group. More than a place to learn to dance, creator Keli Berry has formed a very special community where young girls come together to grow and learn what it means to be a woman. Coach and mother figure Keli’s true dedication to carving out better futures for her students shines through this moving interview.

CS: Let’s start from the beginning! Tell us about the story behind why you decided to coach Divas of Compton.
KB: I was inspired to create the Divas of Compton after attending Clark Atlanta University (CAU) in Atlanta, GA. While at CAU, the name of my residence hall was called the Bumstead Hall Divas.  It was here that I learned the value of Sisterhood and the importance of cooperation and collaboration. During my undergraduate experience I developed the Divas because many of the young girls in the Atlanta inner city were in need of a program that teaches them values such as integrity and a safe space to explore their creativity and femininity. Growing up as a child in the 80’s and 90’s, I was influenced by a strong female presence in Hip Hop and R&B.  I was inspired by Salt N’ Pepa, Queen Latifah and I wanted to be a “Fly Girl” dancer on the hit TV show “In Living Color”. From this era in the Hip Hop Culture, I saw strength, sex appeal, and creativity in women and aspired to be just that.
However; as a young adult in the 2000’s I saw the shift in the female presence in the Hip Hop culture and recognized that women were over-sexualized, and misogyny became widely acceptable. As a result, the new generation of young girls were not provided with examples of a strong female presence.  I noticed young girls in need of reinserted values and I created the Divas to serve as a counter-culture and a program that taught leadership through performing arts and dance.
I then was given an opportunity to perform in Ghana, West Africa in 2007 for Ghana’s 50th Anniversary of Independence. I fell in love with Ghana and decided to stay for a while and teach Dance and enjoy living life. It was during my stay in Ghana when I had a series of epiphanies that lead me to the realization that I needed to return to my hometown of Compton, California to help the youth and teens in my city.
Reluctant to go, I went back home.  Upon my return I came home to a city that was infested with gang violence and Human Trafficking.  While driving through the city I would see Sex Workers as young as teenagers walking the streets at all times throughout the day and night.  I realized that I had to create the Divas of Compton to help reinforce positive values and leadership amongst the new generation of youths and teens; and dance was a way to draw in and attract the young ladies.
CS: More than somewhere to learn to dance, it seems like Divas of Compton is a place that dancers can call home. How did you manage to create such a strong sense of community within the group?
KB: Many of the Divas of Compton have experienced hardships and have to deal with trauma.  It is our goal to help them navigate through murky waters and to find strategies that will help them overcome these issues.
CS: You’ve said that through dance, you hope to help your students find the leader within them. How do you guide them to this empowering realisation?
KB: We offer small group counseling and chat sessions with health and wellness professionals in the community. In addition, we identify issues plaguing the youth in the community and address solutions so that the Divas learn the art of being solution driven and identifying answers to problems they face.
CS: Dance is an incredible form of self-expression and allows us to channel our emotions in a positive manner. Do you think dance can be a cathartic way to help us come to terms with our feelings or perhaps the past?
KB: The Divas use Dance as a tool to express their emotions, rather than feel anger, resentment, happiness, joy or sadness, they can use Dance as a way to physically release their emotions in a safe space. Sometimes I visualize specific themes or messages that I would like to relay through Dance and then my coaches and co create choreography along with implementing the feelings of the dancers in the performance.  Some issues we have targeted in the past have been the issue of human trafficking, and we’ve even been able to express the pain that comes from some of our youths who feel abandoned and left alone as children to fend for themselves in this world, and we’ve talked about young girls coming into their sexuality and looking for love in all the wrong places and the need for guidance and mentorship.
CS: You coach an impressive range of dance styles. Do you find that you associate different styles with different emotions or attitudes? Or does it vary depending on the energy of the individual routines?
KB: The Divas of Compton are known for Battle Dancing as well as Praise Dancing. On one hand, we express and use battle-street dancing to help release frustration, anger, resentment, and the need to want to fight against all the things that are oppressing us. We use Praise Dance to express our feelings of gratitude and humility for the blessings that we’ve received. We are a delicate balance of street, classy and educated.  The Divas are well-rounded and balanced Dancers and Leaders.
CS: With ballet in particular requiring such a high level of discipline, I wondered how you manage to strike the balance between coach and mother figure when working with your students?
KB: For many of the Divas, I play the role of second mother. I often direct the group with an iron fist but with open loving arms that are quick to embrace and love on them.
I have the spirit and wisdom of a great-grandmother with the energy and passion of a young woman. Those two personalities together make it easy for me to understand, empathize and lead such a dynamic and diverse group of youth.
I am always counseling, encouraging, directing, and leading the youth, and to be honest, I love what I do and find extreme joy and satisfaction in being the leader of the Divas of Compton.
CS: The energy of the entire group during your America’s Got Talent performance is truly electric! How did it feel to get such positive responses from all four judges?
KB: Our goal is to provide the youth with opportunities that will allow them to see the world through a larger lens and to help them understand that they can achieve their goals with hard work and determination.  Performing on the America’s Got Talent stage was incredible as this has been our largest platform and to receive such encouraging remarks from the judges solidified and reinforced to all of us that we are on the right path.  America’s Got Talent is truly a life-changing experience for the Divas of Compton.
CS: It is your dedication to helping create opportunities for children and young adults who ordinarily wouldn’t have as many as others that makes you so inspiring and the ultimate role-model for your students. What are your hopes for their futures?
KB: I hope that through the Divas of Compton the youth realize that they can be the change they wish to see in the world and that they do not have to settle for less than what they are truly worth. I want the members to realize that their potential grows daily and to never set limitations on their greatness. Lastly, I want them to reflect all that is good in the world and to be a change agent for their homes and communities. I want them to create a legacy for their families and to leave their mark on the world by being a light for those who may be in a dark place to follow.
Photography: Magdalena Wosinska
Words: Cordelia Speed