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JCPS students receive lessons from visiting New York dance company

Students from Western Middle School for the Arts honed their skills under the direction of members from the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Breya Jones
Students from Western Middle School for the Arts honed their skills under the direction of members from the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

JCPS students hit the floor with members of a New York dance company to hone their skills ahead of the troupe’s performance at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts’ Whitney Hall on Nov. 3.

Dance majors at Western Middle School for the Arts lined up in rows in the school’s black box theater. They focused their attention to the front of the room where members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem went over counts.

Before Robert Garland, the dance company’s artistic director, got to the warm-ups, he explained the history of the dance company. Its founder, Arthur Mitchell, was one of the first Black principal performers for a major dance company.

He created the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 so Black dancers could have a space to showcase their talents and abilities. The troupe continues that mission today by working with young people with an interest in dance.

“Back in the day, Arthur Mitchell, our founder, took us to South Africa and the only stipulation that he made with the government there was that we worked in the townships as well,” Garland explained.

The company has kept with its mission by offering masterclasses in the communities they visit while performing across the country.

“It's a part of our DNA,” he said. “Some of our alumni are in some really high and mighty places now, but they all started in that moment where Arthur Mitchell said, ‘Hey, come teach a class in middle school here or there.’”

JCPS’ Western Middle School for the Arts similarly tries to support and foster their students' love for the arts. Its dance program made it a perfect candidate for the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s masterclass.

Dance teacher Tamara Begley said it was particularly important to her for her students to see professionals whom they can relate to.

“When you're talking about ballet and western dance, you're mostly talking about, you know, a lot of white choreographers and a lot of mostly white companies, there hasn't always been the opportunity for students of color to, to have dance classes at a high level or to have dance classes in western dance forms like ballet,” Begley explained.

Begley said she tries to ensure her students see people of color in dances she shows them and choreographers she pulls from, but the dance company’s presence offers something very special.

“To have the Dance Theatre of Harlem with their history and their program, 54 years, working with students of color and creating gorgeous ballerinas of color in our building, working with our students, it's really, really meaningful, for them to see people like them doing this kind of work,” she said.

Begley pulled dance majors from all across all grades to participate. She said she picked students who were meeting or exceeding expectations in her class and then drew them from a hat to narrow them down.

Cailyn Gold is a seventh grader at Western. She said she was nervous before the class started, but in the end learning from Garland wasn’t too daunting.

“It's kind of like what we deal with every day,” Gold said.

She hopes she did well enough to be remembered by Garland and the Dance Theatre of Harlem going forward.

“They're a really big company. And you never know if they’ll put your name out there and you can get more opportunities,” Gold said.

The 12-year-old said dance gives her and others an important outlet.

“Some people can't express themselves through words,” Gold said. “So we express ourselves during dance and that also helps us mentally, physically.”

The Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts Whitney Hall on Nov. 3.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

News Youth Reporting
Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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