Monday, November 2, 2015

Giving Kids A Chance To Dance

Second year DanceChance student in a PNB studio
If you read this weekend’s New York Times, you may have seen an article about how both big New York ballet companies are actively recruiting more kids of color to their school programs.

Long before Misty Copeland grabbed headlines when she became the first African American woman named principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet was scouting for young people like Copeland, potential dancers who might not find ballet on their own.

In 1994, PNB started a program called DanceChance.

Francia Russell, PNB’s founding co-artistic director, and the force behind DanceChance, says the idea was to go into Seattle elementary schools to identify young kids with the physical aptitude for ballet, then provide these kids with free classes, dancewear and transportation to the Phelps Center, on the Seattle Center campus.

Russell laughs at the audacity of the vision.

“We had no money!”

But PNB decided to forge ahead with the program, get it up and running, THEN try to raise funds to support DanceChance.
PNB's 2015 DanceChance audition
photo by Lindsay Thomas

Before that could happen, though, PNB had to convince local schools to buy into the idea.
Russell remembers making pitch after pitch. Finally, the principal at Seattle’s Martin Luther King elementary school said yes to the idea.

More than two decades later, DanceChance operates pretty much as it did the first year, albeit with a lot more funding in place.

Program manager Jennifer McLain and her teachers scouted for talent at 22 elementary schools this fall; they screened every third grader at each school.

McLain says they’re testing the kids’ flexibility and their bodies’ ability to move into the ballet positions. Not everyone is born with these innate physical attributes.

Ballet also requires coordination, a sense of rhythm, and above all, focus.

Current PNB corps de ballet member Angeli Mamon remembers her DanceChance audition, a decade ago at Seattle’s Beacon Hill elementary school.
Angeli Mamon, front row left, at 2005 DanceChance observation day
photo by Barry Thompson

“We thought we were going to the gym,” she explains. “And we sat on these little jelly pad things and did stretches. They didn’t tell us what we were doing.”

Mamon says if she’d known she was auditioning for a ballet program she would have tried to avoid it.

“I was really a tomboy,” she laughs.
Angela Mamon, 2014 Professional Division Next Step performance
photo by Angela Sterling

Mamon is the first female DanceChance student to be invited to dance with PNB. (Former corps member Eric Hippolito was the first DanceChance grad ever hired by PNB. He’s at Arizona Ballet this year.)
Mamon says “I absolutely love this program. I would not be where I am without it.”

But she concedes the transition from her home environment to the ballet world was jarring.
Her mother, who’s from Mexico, didn’t know much about ballet. Neither did Mamon.
And neither do most of the DanceChance kids who walk into PNB’s Phelps Center for the very first time.

Francia Russell remembers watching them the very first day of the program “kind of creep up the stairs into this big building. They think ‘ballet, what’s that?’”
Nazirah Taylor at DanceChance observation day
photo by Barry Thompson

“The cultural difference is huge,” acknowledges Najja Morris. Her 17-year old daughter, Nazirah Taylor, was picked for DanceChance 9 years ago. She’s now in the top ranks of the PNB school.

Morris was thrilled when her daughter was selected for DanceChance, but she had a lot of concerns.

“You hear horror stories about children in ballet, mean girls, cliques,” Morris says. “When Nazirah started, she had locks in her hair. Everyone was great pulling them into a bun, but she she didn’t look like everyone else.”

And as Nazirah has moved up the ranks, Morris says there were “fewer brown people” her daughter could look up to as role models.
Nazirah Taylor in PNB School Level 8 performance
photo by Angela Sterling

Former PNB soloist Kiyon Gaines knows exactly how that feels. He remembers his own days as an aspiring ballet dancer in Baltimore.

“There weren’t other people, role models, for me to look up to. There was no one else like me.”
Kiyon Gaines soars in PNB production of Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station"
photo by Angela Sterling

Gaines, who retired from PNB last spring, is now a DanceChance faculty member. DanceChance manager Jennifer McLain is thrilled to have him.

“The boys’ faces, seeing Kiyon at the screenings,” she says. “They were thinking this guy is awesome. He’s just like me!”
Former PNB soloist Kiyon Gaines with his DanceChance students

Gaines says “being able to influence the next generation of dancers is so important to me! I felt like I didn’t have a lot of champions in my corner when I was growing up.”

Not every DanceChance kid is destined to become a professional ballet dancer.
Program Manager Jennifer McLain is ok with that.

“Seeing them come and realize they’re special. They can be whatever they want.”

You can see former DanceChance student Angeli Mamon with the rest of the PNB dancers this weekend at "Emergence" at McCaw Hall.


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