Boston City Lights Works to Make Kids Dreams into Reality

By Beth Treffeisen

On a Wednesday afternoon in early April, excited kids bounce their way into an eclectic studio in the South End to prepare for their Dance Basics and Performance Skills class taught by the famous Russell Ferguson, the winner of sixth season of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

These children don’t know how famous their teacher is, but they are prepared to get silly out on the dance floor and learn some moves, with a little help from their parents.

Boston City Lights is a free performing school located at 1154 Washington St., in the South End. It is situated amongst one of the remanding parts of the South End that has yet to give way to new development and luxury apartments.

Since 1989, Boston City Lights has carved out its own niche in the neighborhood when it permanently opened its studio in an historic building that almost gets lost with all the new hustle and bustle that has come to the area.

Classes range from traditional dance classes to ballet to Chinese classical, to professional singing training, acting, sound and film to even fencing.

During the summer the school also extends programming at City Lights North, a summer dance camp in Farmington, Maine.

Teacher, Ferguson, went through the free arts program here before making it big on T.V. He’s not the only one to make it professionally with a number of students doing various shows in L.A. or touring with bands.

Boston City Lights focuses on professional training to any willing, hard-working, inner-city youth. Older students later act as guides and teacher for younger students at the school.

This school isn’t just for students looking for a hobby; it is focused on helping students to obtain professional opportunities both volunteer and paid, for performers who are ready.

“It is a professional arts program and the students need to be professionals,” said Tiane Donahue a volunteer on her spare time and teacher at Dartmouth College. “You know, the kids are performing in front of an audience that’s not just their parents.”

Through community performances and workshops, students learn a sense of social responsibility for their communities, and for their ability to effect change through art and through one-on-one involvement.

The program ensures that the students have a well-rounded skill set to succeed in the professional world.

“Because it’s free – if you’re here you need to work hard,” said Donahue. “After they graduate some kids go on a traditional college track…and other kids do professional work.

Boston City Lights once garnered students from the South End, typically now gets students from nearby Roxbury and Dorchester.

“The South End has changed a lot,” said Donahue. Many of the kids who live in the neighborhood now take part of paid classes at the nearby Boston Center for the Arts.

Because Boston City Lights is an all-volunteer program there is a very small annual budget for keeping the school open and operating.

In the building itself, every time a unit above the school gets sold a small percentage gets donated to the school. In addition the school submits applications for grants.

Most recently, Boston City Lights is being considered as a recipient for mitigation funds from the 370-380 Harrison Ave redevelopment. Overall, there is a $250,000 fund that the developers will be giving to selected community organizations.

“Because there is not a large budget, when we get mitigation funding it can make a huge difference even when it’s not that much,” said Donahue.

Three full-time volunteers, Duggan Hill, Braun Duggan, and Donahue staff Boston City Lights. They also rely on the assistance of student-teacher volunteers and other local professionals who share their time in support of the organization.

Hill, the executive director envisioned opening a school for Boston’s underprivileged youth about 30 years ago. He wanted to provide an education and performance center that would provide children a supportive channel for their creativity.

In 1979, Boston City Lights became a reality and started mostly teaching kids how to dance using public parks and spaces until they received their studio. Since then, the school has served thousands of the city’s children.

Braun Duggan, who is the son of the executive director, said that he has been a part of the school since he was six or seven years old. He joked, “I didn’t have much of a choice.”

Although he did dance performing into college, Duggan fell in love with DJ production and has made it into a career.

Over the past few years, Duggan has slowly been taking over Boston City Lights and introducing a music program, from playing instruments to music production.

“The technology is so affordable,” said Duggan. “A computer – and that’s all you need.”

Duggan said that when he went to school there was a music program where you learned the basics of music theory. But now, he said, kids are coming in with zero knowledge and he has to start with the basics.

“I’ve done a lot of work to come up with things to move the school forward,” said Duggan. As he moves into a more leadership role over his father he said, “We have a decent professional relationship but you know, we also have a father-son relationship.”

You can learn more about Boston City Lights by visiting,

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