- Associated Press - Friday, November 4, 2016

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - The rhythmic crack and pop of Brazilian drums filled a classroom at the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, and students dressed in dance attire began to sway, shimmy and tap their feet against the hardwood floor.

Marcus J. Willis, a former dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, walked to the center of the room, and the high school dancers who had been lost in familiar music hurried to surround Willis for his instruction, The Kansas City Star (http://bit.ly/2ffOGgo ) reported.

One, two, three, four, Willis counted off beats to Michael Jackson’s song “They Don’t Care About Us,” and dancers moved forward in a line like marching soldiers.

For two weeks - four classes a day - Willis, 31, is teaching choreography at Paseo Academy.

“These are students who have really committed to the art form,” Willis said. “For a lot of them they are at a stage where they are trying to figure out if this is what they want to do, and I can relate to that.”

For most of the students, getting lessons from a professional like Willis, especially one who only a few months ago was dancing with the famed African-American Alvin Ailey company, can be life changing, said Kendra Kemp, a spokeswoman for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.

Willis’ teaching residency at Paseo is the result of a decadelong partnership the Kansas City Public Schools has had with Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey. The Paseo Project - funded in part by the school district and the Missouri Arts Council - fits with the mission of Friends of Alvin Ailey to make dance accessible to all people, to teach young people critical life skills through dance, and modeling interracial and multicultural community partnerships.

Friends of Alvin Ailey has maintained outreach in the community for years, with everything from professionals in residency at area schools, to this year having Ailey dancers doing pop-up performances in malls, grocery stores and office buildings throughout the Kansas City area.

“Mr. Ailey believed that dance came from the people and should be delivered back to the people,” said Tyrone Aiken, chief artistic officer for Friends of Alvin Ailey.

Aiken said the classroom work goes a long way to serve the Friends of Alvin Ailey mission and allows students to learn about their bodies, endurance, creativity, emotion and how to work in teams. But it also presents an opportunity for the professional dance instructor to experience teaching the art at a different level, and for some to give back to their own community.

Terrence Poplar, a former Ailey dancer who has been teaching dance in Japan, will visit Paseo to teach for two weeks when the Willis residency ends. Poplar is a graduate of Paseo, “and we want students to see that,” Aiken said.

Paseo students throughout the school year will be taught by four different Ailey professionals. In the spring, they will perform the works choreographed for them by the professionals in a student showcase.

But already, working with Willis is “a dream come true,” said Nichole Ward, 15. “I want to be a professional dancer,” said Ward, a sophomore at Paseo who has been dancing since eighth grade.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Jade Mabin, 16. “I like the way he teaches. He breaks everything down for us. I’ve learned so much.”

For Brandon Morris, a 17-year-old junior at Paseo, it’s a chance of a lifetime. “I always had a passion for dance,” Morris said. “But I never had the money to take dance lessons. When I moved to Kansas City from St. Louis, I got to attend Paseo performing arts school for free. Now I’m dancing with an Alvin Ailey dancer. It’s awesome.”

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Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com

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