The face—or rather, faces—of ballet must reflect our diverse society if the centuries-old art form is to flourish, according to Harriet Fellows of the Maryland Youth Ballet (MYB), the Silver Spring training academy for ballet dancers.
“Ballet has been rarified for far too long. Now, at last, we’re seeing change and diversity across the field,” she said, citing the emergence of ballerinas of color such as Misty Copeland, the first African-American promoted to principal dancer in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theatre.
For the past decade, MYB has done its bit to promote diversity via its JumpStart program. Fellows coordinates and co-teaches the 10-week, afterschool ballet program offered free of charge to low-income first- and second-graders. Currently, the initiative is active at nine Montgomery County public schools and one in Prince Georges.
“It takes years to build a dancer. If we can find another Misty Copeland out there, that would be fantastic,” Fellows said.
The initiative was recently awarded a $10,000 federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that will support MYB’s outreach to budding ballerinas over the 2017-2018 school year and summer. “The grant won’t support the whole program, of course, but it’s such an honor to recognized,” she said.
Fellow noted that Linkages to Learning, a Montgomery County and nonprofit collaboration to improve the well-being of area children and families, also plays a vital role in the program’s success. “Linkages identifies the schools and finds the space for the class, then vets the kids to ensure eligibility,” Fellows said of the 20 or so children participating at each school. “Then our role is to introduce ballet to kids who might not otherwise experience formal dance training.”
Austin St. John, a 27-year MYB faculty member, said the JumpStart after-school students come in “all shapes and sizes, demeanors and talent levels.”
“The first session can be chaotic, what with getting the kids into the leotards and ballet slippers we provide the girls, and the T-shirts and leggings for the boys,” he said. “But then we get down to the business of introducing the five ballet positions that every dancer practices, from day one to the day they retire.”
While the children learn a few age-appropriate steps and turns, the MYB instructors are also keeping their eyes out for students who display a little something extra in both aptitude and attitude. About 20 to 25 students from among the 200 after-school participants will be invited to attend a free week-long dance camp that will be held the following summer. From that group, several students will be offered full scholarships to attend MYB academy classes during the school year.
“As in any sport or after-school activity, kids need the support and buy-in from family members, St. John said. “Transportation can be an issue for JumpStart kids. We don’t treat them differently artistically, but we do try to offer a bit of support with carpools and by making sure our materials are available in Spanish.”
Diana Rodriguez, 14, of Silver Spring, uses public transport to attend MYB classes. Now a rising freshman at Montgomery Blair High School, she said JumpStart classes at Montgomery Knolls Elementary School introduced her to the dance form she hopes to pursue professionally.
Ballet influences all aspects of her life, she said. “My friends say ballet is good for me because it keeps me focused on my grades, too.”
During the JumpStart camp held in June, Rodriguez demonstrated dance steps and built quite a fan base. “The kids idolized Diana, whether she was dancing or helping with crafts. She’s a real role model,” Fellows said.
For more information about Maryland Youth Ballet, call 301-608-2232 or visit marylandyouthballet.org. View Maryland Youth Ballet’s profile on CultureSpotMC here.