- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

It's Saturday morning and an advanced-beginner ballet class is lined up in position at a handrail in one of Kennedy Center's rehearsal rooms. They're doing warm-up exercises under the tutelage of Dean Anderson, a former dancer with the New York-based Dance Theatre of Harlem.
"Plie. … Grand battement. … Developpe," Mr. Anderson calls out French terms familiar to most of the solemn-faced youngsters performing more or less in unison. Some struggle to hold their poses.
The class in progress is one of the regular instructional lessons in an eight-week program called the Dance Theatre of Harlem Residency. Now in its 10th year, the program takes place on winter and early spring weekends at the Kennedy Center under the direction of dance legend Arthur Mitchell, founder of the DTH. Students are Greater Washington-area children many of them from inner-city schools interested in perfecting the skills and discipline that classical dance requires.
Most participants already attend a number of local dance studios, and some will go on to make dance their career. The intensive residency program exposes them to instruction from dancers who are or have been professionals in world-renowned dance companies.
Taped music is usual in beginner ballet classes, but these weekend sessions have live piano accompaniment at all levels. Today, Andrew Simpson, a composer and music professor at Catholic University, accompanies Mr. Anderson's classes as the students go through a series of classical ballet's precise and exacting moves.
Girls are a majority in the program overall. In a slightly larger rehearsal space downstairs, 20 young women in an intermediate/advanced class are being coached by professional dancer/teacher Jenny Sui-kan Chiang, the first Beijing-trained ballerina to have a successful performing career in the West.
Melissa Kuba, 17, a senior at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., and a member of the intermediate/advanced class, is considering moving to New York after graduation this spring. She auditioned last month for Alvin Ailey's New York School of the American Ballet that is linked with a bachelor's degree program at Fordham University. She calls the DTH teachers "very nurturing," and says, shrewdly, that participation in the program "really looks good on the resume."
However, the program is intended to do more than teach the principles of dance in a professional atmosphere.
"It's [about] making a real human being," says Mr. Mitchell by telephone from New York. He visits classes periodically, sometimes helping teach.
"All [our residency graduates] have gone on to college and are doing well," he attests. "Out of some 80 chosen maybe 75 become dancers at least in college programs. It's amazing how you see them change. One year may be all ballet, and another year we may add character dance. But we may also do folk dancing. Amazing that you can take a kid who is green with so-so training and once he or she sees what correct training is, take it back [to their teachers] and retain it."
This year's program began Jan. 18 and continues through May 18, with a two-week break in early March. The culminating event will be a public performance on the morning of May 24 in the Eisenhower Theater by some of the residency students during Dance Theatre of Harlem's regular Kennedy Center engagement, May 20 through 25. Tickets to the May 24 event are free but must be obtained through the center's Education Department.
Students ages 7 to 18 are eligible to apply as long as they are still in school. In addition, chosen participants are expected to maintain a high scholastic average. Because of special attention given them in this 10th-year anniversary, applicants 267 showed up for auditions were required to have at least one year of ballet experience elsewhere.
A great deal of personal discipline is expected from participants, as well.
Two older boys, correctly attired in black tights and white T-shirts, were sitting slumped over in chairs watching Mr. Anderson conducting his morning class. They had come minutes after the 10 a.m. start time. Under program rules, students may not take part in the day's class if they arrive late. Downstairs, in the young women's class, the only break that students have is for changing from ballet flats into toe shoes before taking up positions at the bar.

Parents, in turn, are expected to back their offspring by giving them financial help. In addition to practice clothes and ballet shoes, costs are a minimum $40 for each person accepted into the first session, known as Phase I, and $100 for the more advanced and lengthy second session, called Phase II, which meets on both Saturdays and Sundays. Scholarship help is available. In addition, Kennedy Center spends $140,000 for the project's instructional and administrative costs, according to Derek Gordon, the center's vice president for education.
"What is incredible is the parental support," Mr. Mitchell enthuses.
Andrea Thomas, a public health nurse, who drives two hours each Saturday with her daughter Nefertiti Thomas, 16, from Orange County, Va., is fully involved. "I think the teachers help them to feel important and impart professionalism, which Nefertiti has picked up on," she says.
Her daughter, who began dancing at age 10, was accepted into Phase II last year and is hoping it will happen again, even though it means getting up at 5:30 a.m. on both Saturday and Sunday for classes. She also received a full scholarship to the DTH New York residency program last summer.
"What is so wonderful is we have so many boys, and that is because the program was started by a man," Mr. Mitchell says, alluding to himself. "We insist on having [some] male teachers, so they always have a male image in front of them," he says.
"It is like a status symbol to be accepted into the program," he adds. "You then become like a ministar in the community."
In a way, that was what happened to 17-year-old Demetrius Tabron, a student at the Duke Ellington School in the District who hopes to be able to go on this year to the North Carolina School of the Arts.
"I was into hip-hop, mainly, and got into ballet at 12," says Demetrius of his younger years, when, he said, he was laughed at for his interest in dance. "I was getting picked on, and then in seventh grade I showed my talent in a school play at Hine Junior High School. Teachers supported me a lot and introduced me to Duke Ellington." No one laughs anymore at the skilled 6-foot-2-inch, 175-pound dancer.
"When he was 12 or 13 years old, I thought, 'He'll get over it,'" says his mother Saundra Tabron, "but he is good, so I'm behind it 100 percent. The discipline is good. That is what I have in my house, and it helps to build self-esteem."
Classes are composed with care. An especially talented boy will be surrounded by more accomplished male dancers so the younger one isn't held back. The range in Mr. Anderson's morning session included 9-year-old John Manzari, from the District's F.S. Key Elementary School, as well as the more experienced and older Mr. Tabron.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded by Mr. Mitchell in 1969 in response to the death of Martin Luther King. Social awareness was in the air. Realizing that art forms can teach the importance of discipline and hard work and help young people find meaning and direction in their lives, he instituted several educational outreach programs, of which the Kennedy Center project is one.
A similar residency that he sponsored in Detroit just concluded a two-week program. A more intensive program, known as summer camp, takes place under aegis of the Dance Theatre of Harlem School in New York.
Several graduates of the local residency have been accepted into Mr. Mitchell's professional company. In this way, he has benefited, too, by being able to discover and nurture new talent at the source. Students find out about the program through local dance studios, on the Web and by word of mouth. Through the years, program officials boast, some 40,000 students, dance professionals, public school personnel and community supporters in the Washington area have been involved in various capacities.
"I hope that people who support the arts will recognize that this class supports excellence and diversity," volunteers Cecilia Ray, mother of Jorden Blair, 7, a student at the District's Beauvoir-National Cathedral Elementary School.
"I signed her up at 3 years, and she was put on a waiting list," Ms. Ray recalls, describing her daughter as "a different kind of child" and "a very competitive child."
"She knows what she likes and what she doesn't like. She is pretty focused. When she was an infant, I noticed I could teach her anything through song. I did research and geared her in directions like that."
Young Jorden, who takes two dance classes outside the DTH program, already is in the residency's advanced/intermediate level and last summer attended the Katherine Dunham dance school in East St. Louis, where her mother grew up.

A table on one side in the rehearsal hall where Ms. Chiang teaches holds a first aid kit, a box of instant cold packs, and a book titled "First Lessons in Ballet."
"Studying ballet is not like going to school," are some of book's introductory words. "As long as you keep dancing, you never graduate."
Ms. Chiang thanks the students at the end of the session and students applaud her in return. Then Eloise Clayton, an assistant in the Education Department's Community Partnerships office, speaks up, reminding the group of the rules.
"Concentrate on your hair," she says sternly but affectionately. "You don't want it flying about. Use nets or clips. … And we expect you to keep up, even if your parents don't."
Ms. Clayton's daughter Kymm Clayton, 23, who is visiting that day, is one of the program's success stories. She joined the DTH company on its European tour after graduation from Wilson High School and, most recently, performed with the American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey.
Wilson, she laughs, "taught cheerleading, not dance." Before the residency experience, she says, "I was never exposed to black dancers. I had no idea it was possible. I knew of Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but knowing it and seeing it is totally different. Only through this program was I exposed to professionals."


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