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VOL. 132 | NO. 35 | Friday, February 17, 2017

Ballet On Wheels Series Explores Contributions of Black Dancers

BY MARIA ZOCCOLA Special to The Daily News

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The dancers at Memphis’s Ballet On Wheels Dance School are celebrating Black History Month in an innovative way this year. In conjunction with the Memphis Public Library, Ballet On Wheels has launched an interactive, monthlong series called “Groundbreakers: African-American Ballerina Stories of Triumph and Struggles,” that invites Memphians to consider the history and future of ballet in a new light.

Hosted at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, “Groundbreakers” includes a documentary screening that took place on Feb. 9, a children’s dance workshop on Feb. 18, and a Ballet On Wheels performance on Feb. 25. All events address the contributions of black dancers to ballet, both historically and through the talents of the dancers at Ballet on Wheels.

“There are pioneers of all ethnicities, but as a primarily African-American school, we wanted to educate the community about black dancers,” said Stephanie Hill, school operations manager for Ballet On Wheels.

A gallery of pioneering black ballerinas will remain open through February at the central library. Library staff jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with Ballet On Wheels when the idea for the project was first discussed.

“We’re all about promoting local organizations that are helping young people excel and aspire to new and fun positions and goals and careers, and that’s what Ballet On Wheels is all about,” MPL public services manager Stacey Smith said.

Ballet On Wheels is using its temporary library home to full effect. At the “Read, Write, and Move” children’s dance workshop on Feb. 18, program leaders will read books by black authors and help children choreograph dance moves to accompany the stories.

“It’s a dance class with a twist,” said Chauniece Thompson, executive artistic director for Ballet On Wheels.

Thompson is hoping that the “Groundbreakers” series will inspire the next generation of young people.

“As a kid you don’t think about the background of dancing, but seeing these women and their stories gives the dancers a better appreciation of what they’re doing,” Thompson said.

Tammy Elliott is the mother of two young Ballet On Wheels dancers, Tamia and Talisa. She is a firm believer in history as a motivational tool.

“We’re giving them something to strive for,” she said. “We’re letting them know that there are a lot more African-Americans that are ballerinas. Because honestly, normally we typically see Caucasian ballerinas.”

Ballet On Wheels teaches children ages three to 17. Although the company has a studio location in Cooper-Young, instructors also travel around the Memphis area offering lessons to schools, community centers and day care centers. The service is geared toward children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect with ballet.

“It’s about taking dance to people and letting them know that it’s reachable,” Hill said. “It’s something that anybody can participate in. A lot of times people hear ballet and they think that it’s stuffy or it’s not for them, but it’s for everybody.”

Ballet On Wheels has two performance companies for students and will be giving a special show as the culmination of the “Groundbreakers” series on Feb. 25.

“The students are excited,” Thompson said. “It’s definitely been educational for them. It’s exciting for them to be able to read some of the information on these dancers. There are things that we may take for granted today, where we can go out and take classes and dance and not have so many political pieces that play a part. They’re reading some of the stories of some of the other young women featured, and it’s just unbelievable.”

Ballet On Wheels and the Memphis Public Library hope everyone experiencing the “Groundbreakers” series will come away with a deeper knowledge of the women who paved the way for modern dancers, like Misty Copeland, the first African-American promoted to principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre who also endorses several products and companies such as Under Armour. “Groundbreakers” shows that historical ballerinas like Raven Wilkinson and Debra Austin set an example both for young dancers and for anyone striving to beat the odds.

“We welcome folks to bring in those programs that may catapult our young people and our older adults into something that they may not necessarily have known about had they not been exposed to it here at the library,” Smith said.

Thompson is especially hopeful that “Groundbreakers” will leave a mark on the young dancers.

“I hope it inspires them to want to continue,” she said. “Who knows? One day they might be groundbreakers making a really big impact on the dance community.”

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