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Project Plié: Bringing classical ballet to the ‘hood

MIKE McGEE | 9/19/2015, 10:11 a.m.
“So, we’re going to do a beginning ballet class, dancers, and all I need you to do is follow along,” ...
Instructor McKinley Willis seemed to float on the air as she teaches students from the East Dallas Boys & Girls Club the basics of ballet on Sept. 2. The children are members of Project Plie’, a partnership between the Dallas Black Dance Theater, The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Dallas and the American Ballet Theater. Mike McGee

The Dallas Examiner

“So, we’re going to do a beginning ballet class, dancers, and all I need you to do is follow along,” announced the director of the Dallas Black Dance Theater Academy to the company of children before her. “Go ahead and move your legs together; I want to see your feet touching.”

The group of approximately 30 student dancers participated in the Sept. 2 class as part of Project Plie’ Master Class Series partnership between the Dallas Black Dance Theater, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas and The American Ballet Theater.

The nationwide project, founded in 2013, aims to increase diversity within classical ballet, according to a statement released by the DBDT. In 2014, the ABT partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America organization with the intent to identify talented dance students across the U.S. for training with ABT Curriculum Certified Teachers.

“Last year over 500 young people benefitted under this program,” said Charles English, president and CEO of the BGCD. Locally, two free hour-long classes will take place weekly at both the East Dallas and Oak Cliff Boys & Girls Clubs throughout the 2015-2016 school year.

“Dallas Black Dance Theater shares with the American Ballet Theater the belief that children identified at an early age and immersed in long-term, rigorous dance instruction can flourish as professional classical dancers and as individuals,” said Georgia Scaife, president of the DBDT board of directors.

That philosophy echoes a 2012 report entitled The Arts and Achievements in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies in which National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman wrote, “I firmly believe that when a school delivers the complete education to which every child is entitled – an education that very much includes the arts – the whole child blossoms.”

His introduction remarked that arts programs in public schools are often targeted for budget cuts.

For many families around the Metroplex, finding such outlets outside of schools may prove to be financially difficult. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that, between 2009 and 2013, the population of people in the city living below poverty level was at 23.8 percent.

To English, the importance of the partnership for what he termed “traditionally underserved neighborhoods” was clear.

English also noted the ABT has recently garnered worldwide attention for promoting Misty Copeland to serve as their principal dancer, the first African American to hold that position within the troupe.

“[Copeland] is a part of – I am incredibly proud to say it plain and to have claim to – is a product of the Boys & Girls Club movement, dating back to the time when she was 13,” the CEO continued, in reference to the dancer’s involvement with the project. “And because of that, I believe it’s just her way of giving back that incredible talent that was discovered in the club at that time.”

A five-minute introduction video that featured Copeland as she went through her daily ABT routine and discussed her passion for ballet was played before the start of the master class.

“The Dallas Black Dance Theater is more than excited today; we are elated,” Zenetta Drew, artistic director of the DBDT, exclaimed as she revealed that as many as 10 students involved with the classes would receive free scholarships to attend weekly training at the DBDT Academy.

Drew also mentioned that the partnership involved over a year of planning, and during the summer members of the Academy studied in New York to become certified instructors.

“We are thrilled to be a part of this great opportunity and to elevate the Dallas Black Dance Theater Academy to a national level with this partnership,” Scaife added.

Once the afternoon class was underway, firm but enthusiastic guidance by Master ballet instructor Omoniyi Obioha soon had the seated students stretching and reaching as they warmed up their legs on the wooden floor of the club.

“Flex the right, flex the left,” she directed the future artist-athletes who dutifully followed along. “Flex the right, flex the left; flex the right …”