Published by The Prince George’s Sentinel
Set out to “demystify the art form of ballet,” Harlem Dance Theatre choreographer Robert Garland didn’t start classes with art, science or even a French “plie” at Suitland High School on Saturday.
More than 40 dancers between the ages of 8 and 18 participated in the Harlem Dance Theatre’s three ballet workshops sponsored by Prince George’s County Public Schools, Arts and Humanities Council and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and The Crisis magazine.
Founded by Arthur Mitchell in 1969, Dance Theatre of Harlem opened the doors for black children to train in classical dance after the death of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The idea of having access to something that you would not normally have is what we are about,” Garland said, introducing a brief history of the theatre before starting class. “That’s why we’re here.”
“That doesn’t mean, like, you have to think like you’re Harriet Tubman at the barre (handrail), but you have to know that you’re dancing for people that never had an opportunity,” he said to the lines of student-dancers dressed in black leotards.
Eight-year dancer Jakylah Lewis, 13, of Clinton, Md., said learning that history was important.
“There’s always something new to learn,” she said. “It’s amazing how it started after the civil rights (movement) and how they managed to do it in New York and African Americans, of course, to get all those dancers together and now we look up to them (and) see the generations.”
Like their historical predecessors, Jakylah Lewis and her “Mom-a-ger,” NAACP volunteer LaShawn Lewis, also did some recruiting to get dancers in the community together.
The 13-year-old didn’t want her peers to miss out on the opportunity, so she helped circulate the word around National Ballet in Annapolis, Md. and Dance Dimensions in Forestville, Md.
Lewis said she managed to get about 20 dancers to participate in the event where many learned the “rond de jambe” and “fouette” techniques for the first time.
In “rond de jambe,” dancers “have to put pressure on one leg,” 11-year-old dancer Ranani Wilson said. “I learned that. I didn’t know.”
As the youth dancers listened to classical music and crossed heel to toe in the studio, parents sat in the multipurpose room and listened to NAACP members talk about other organization initiatives, including the Junior Youth Council and Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics program.
“Art is so important in African American communities,” NAACP Chapter President Bob Ross said in an interview.
“Mentoring programs are good, but you have to let kids see you in action and giving them something to participate in, instead of lecturing to them all the time.”
“It’s a golden opportunity for them to get into the dance world,” Ross said of the event. “It’s also bringing the community together, allowing opportunities for people to know about what we do, that, not only do we fight for civil rights, but we also fight for having good quality of life.”
Representatives from the county’s NAACP chapter and Arts and Humanities Council are looking to offer the workshop on a larger scale in 2014.
“To have a resource like the Dance Theatre of Harlem, to be a part of the lives of our youth here, is just phenomenal, so we’re looking to continue that relationship,” said Council Executive Director Rhonda Dallas, who called Suitland an “anchor for artistic talent” in the county.
Garland urged student-dancers to “trust the environment.” He also recognized that talent.
“There’s a lot of talent here (in Prince George’s County) that needs some encouragement both at the student level and at the dance studio level,” the choreographer said.
Some dancers said he was strict, but they enjoyed his “professional” direction and structure.
“It was a lot more disciplined and I actually like that quality of the dance,” said dancer Micaiah Jones, 12, of Washington, D.C. “I would definitely do it again.”
Garland said dancing at the Kennedy Center Opera House for more than 20 years has given him perspective that he seeks to impart in his classes.
“Sometimes it (ballet) can be shrouded in mystery, or seems like it’s shrouded in mystery, and it’s not. It’s a really complete science,” Garland said. “I’m hoping they (the student-dancers) came away with an understanding of ballet that they may not have had before, understanding that it is for them.”
Garland’s reasoning for starting dance workshops with a history lesson stems from this hope.
“It’s your ability to see yourself in history that helps children and young adults to move forward,” he said.