For the past 39 years, Marquicia Jones-Woods has devoted her life to the children of the West End.
Born and raised in the neighborhood, Jones-Woods — known affectionately as Ms. Quicy — began her outreach when she was just a teenager.
“I started the children's group as a kid basically,” she says. “I wanted to give the kids in my community something to do because there was just so much going on and I was trying to find positive ways for them to have a day that was filled with fun instead of just the hustle and bustle of everything that was going on around us in public housing.”
She began with beautification projects — painting rocks and benches, planting flowers, picking up trash — and going to church and Bible study, where the kids could get a free meal. Then she added in the arts, creating short plays and dances to “keep them engaged,” she says. “The dance piece took off.”
“The girls were really into that because as the boys got older, they started to get into sports, so I was left with all these girls, trying to do stuff that they liked, that entertained them, that kept them coming every day,” she says.
Thus the Q-Kidz Dance Team was born — even though Jones-Woods herself has no personal dance background.
But it’s about more than just dance. The community studio on Linn Street also offers a support system, a place where kids can get hands-on attention, positive reinforcement, even help with homework. The mission on the website says the program also instills “values about the importance of a good education, living drug free and stopping the violence in their community.”
“It's really not about dance. It's about providing a better life,” Jones-Woods says.
Q-Kidz turned 39 on May 29 but had to delay their anniversary party because of restrictions around COVID-19. Before that, they had to cancel their annual Q-Kidz Day celebration on March 15 because of COVID as well. Jones-Woods also says she has to be especially careful about interacting with people because her husband has a pre-existing condition where “he’s not able to fight off anything.”
This weekend, however, she says they are hosting a private socially distanced Q-Kidz party to hopefully get the studio repainted, inject some new energy into this year’s program and “get this little black cloud out from over us,” she says.
“With COVID, it’s been really rough. We’ve been closed. The only kids that I've been really working with is, I call them the ’40’ — the class of 2020, so I call them the 40,” she says. “I've been working with them because most of them will be going off to college in August so I kind of wanted them to have their last hurrah.”
Currently, there are 100 kids between the ages of 4 and 17 enrolled at the studio. About 75 to 80 actively participate and they’re taught by a mix of instructors. There are two head coaches — Jones-Woods’ twin daughters, Mariah and Chariah — who focus on majorette. Then there’s a pom coach, who used to coach at Xavier; choreographer and DANCEFIX founder Heather Britt, who teaches modern dance; a summertime ballet instructor from the Cincinnati Ballet; an instructor who teaches African and Nigerian dance; and a Salsa instructor.
“We're here from Monday to Friday, literally. And sometimes we're here seven days a week, depending on what's going on — if we have a performance or something coming up,” Jones-Woods says.
She’s hoping to open the studio to classes next week on a much smaller scale, with 10 kids per class. Classes are typically divided by age group. And they’ve been promoting open enrollment sessions on their social media.
Q-Kidz performs frequently locally — you’ll see them onstage at Music Hall, the Aronoff Center, in the Opening Day Parade, BLINK — and they travel across the country to cities like New York, New Orleans, Atlanta and Los Angeles to take part in (and win) dance competitions and events. Q-Kidz dancers have also been immortalized on film in the highly acclaimed 2015 indie movie The Fits.
“We probably do eight to 10 competitions a year if we're able, financially,” Jones-Woods says. “Over the last year and a half, two years, we've been struggling with just trying to keep the building, so it put a lot of pressure on us competing.”
Kids are supposed to pay $50 in monthly dues, but not everyone can afford that. Some can, Jones-Woods says, but she likens the process to pulling teeth.
“I’ll still never, ever turn a kid away whether they pay or not — that’s just not what I’m going to do because I feel like when I do that I'm pushing them back out into the element I'm trying to remove them from,” Jones-Woods says.
At the end of 2019, Q-Kidz was at risk of losing their studio space because of back pay and rising rent in the neighborhood. A deal has since been worked out with the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority that will let them stay. In our interview, Jones-Woods says they don’t have to worry about rent for 2020.
Currently, West End neighbor Sew Valley, a nonprofit small-batch apparel manufacturer and member workspace, is raffling off a Black Lives Matter flag they created with 100% of proceeds going to Q-Kidz. Sew Valley co-founder Shailah Maynard says they are going live on Instagram @sewvalley at the Q-Kidz studio to draw a raffle winner at 3 p.m. Friday, July 10. You must purchase your tickets by noon on July 10 to win. Tickets are $6 for one, $10 for two or $20 for five. (Get them at sewvalley.org.)
And this isn’t the first time the two organizations have connected.
“I do a lot of work in the community. Even during COVID I was still working with the kids outside doing prevention stuff, and I was noticing that all the adults had masks on but the kids were walking around without a mask and I couldn't understand that — like, how do you protect yourself and then the kids are not protected?” Jones-Woods says. “So my board member reached out to Sew Valley and they made 100 masks for me to give to the kids that I was working with or any kid that I saw that needed one and so we built that relationship. And they've just been supporting us ever since.”
When asked how Q-Kidz is going to utilize the funds from the flag raffle, Jones-Woods says she’ll do something for the kids.
“We're not going to use it for operation, that's for sure. We have enough struggle with that,” she says. “No, it’ll definitely go to programming, maybe uniforms, maybe the celebration — a little bit of it will go toward a celebration. But we're definitely not going to use it for bills. It will be for something for the kids.”
If you know anything about the world of dance, you know how important — and elaborate — the aforementioned uniforms are. Jones-Woods says some of Q-Kidz costumes are made, specifically the more intricate ones for competition, and some are bought from dance websites.
“I always want my girls to look just as good as the kids that didn't live in the inner city. I wanted you to be able to identify them. I wanted them to have that same respect,” she says.
And for her, that same care is applied whenever the Q-Kidz girls are together, not just during competitions.
“Whenever I take them out, I always make sure that they all have on the same clothes, even if I'm taking them for ice cream,” Jones-Woods says. “Then they don't have to worry about if somebody has more than them because they all look alike. So if you have a kid whose parents are well off, and they have really, really nice things, and you have this kid that doesn't have a whole lot — they may have a hole in their shoe, feeling some type of way because we’re going out and they don't look as good as the other kids — I don't have that problem because they all look alike. I dress them alike from head to toe.”
Jones-Woods is currently planning a performance with her elite team, who she says are her top-notch Q-Kidz dancers, at the new Black Lives Matter street mural in front of City Hall sometime in the next week or two. She says the event will be cool and make a statement, but also draw attention to the younger generation and their role in the current conversation around racial injustice, policing and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think with this whole process, that the youth is getting left out. Like they’re having all these roundtable talks, but it's always involving the adults — it never involves the youth — and we know the youth need to be at the table because they're up next. If we don't start doing something different with them, we're going to still have the same problem,” she says.
And that ties in to her goals with Q-Kidz: to provide her kids with more opportunities and life experiences than she had.
“I can remember growing up as a kid and just thinking everything was so far-fetched, just thinking those things were out of reach, like thinking that New York was some place that I could never go…and so that's what I try to expose them to," she says. "But if we don't start doing that with them now, you just keep creating this square of problems because you don't take them out of it. So my biggest thing has been to try to expose them to as much as possible and get them out of the square I grew up in and still live in and let them see that there is life outside of this.”
Which circles back to the concept of funding. She says a lot of people think that donating their dollars is the best way to help or support groups like Q-Kidz. Obviously, they do need money to fund their operations, their trips to competitions, their costumes. But Jones-Woods says that the real value comes from people donating their time, showing the kids that people care about them — “they just need somebody that's a hug, a positive word, somebody to sit on the floor and color with,” she says.
“For 38 years, we had nothing. We did it basically with what I could make barbecuing or what I could (get to) make it work. So it's never been about finances. And I want people to understand that giving back doesn't always mean that you have to dig in your pocket. Giving back could just be an hour or two a day that you come and help somebody with math or just come and just be a companion for a day. Just sit and chill with them. They don't get a lot of that,” she says.
“I just don't want people to always think that it is always about a dollar. I know for me, my life wasn’t changed by money people gave me, it was changed by opportunities they provided for me and places they took me outside of the square.”