Dreaming with their feet: New Ballet Ensemble dances across social lines

Back in 2001, Katie Smythe founded the New Ballet Ensemble (NBE) with a simple goal: for every paying student, she would admit a community student on full or partial scholarship. Thirteen years later, NBE has been recognized by The New York Times, the National Symphony Orchestra, and now—Michelle Obama.
Katie Smythe has a problem. Her dancing rats just aren’t giving it their all.

“Justin, I want you to come out front.” says Smythe. “Now I want everybody to watch Justin, because he is really punching it.”

The dancing rats—a group of eight middle schoolers from Orange Mound—are students at the New Ballet Ensemble (NBE), a nonprofit dance academy in Cooper Young Historic District. Smythe is the academy’s CEO and artistic director. Together, they’re practicing for Nut Remix, the school’s funky take on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

Today’s rehearsal is informal: all around the studio, skinny teenagers lounge in t-shirts and sweatpants, awaiting their turn to perform. At Smythe’s urging, Justin steps to the front of the room and demonstrates proper technique: a strange, loping dance with arms extended. And at last, the other rats seem to get the hang of it.

“Much better, guys,” says Smythe, nodding her head in approval. “And—hit, and hit, and punch it!”
Of NBE’s 300 students, 59% are African-American, and 40% fall below the poverty line.?
Lately, NBE has been getting a lot of attention. They’ve been written up in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Earlier this year, they were invited to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. They even got a shout-out on The Colbert Report.

Now, it seems, even first lady Michelle Obama has taken notice.

On Monday, Obama presented NBE with the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, which recognizes the country’s best creative youth development programs. Award winners—of whom there were just twelve, chosen from hundreds of nominees around the country—each receive a $10,000 grant and a year of capacity-building support from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Smythe, who flew to Washington to accept the award, says what struck her most about the First Lady was her warmth.

“Her body language was amazing!” recalls Smythe. “She grabbed my left arm and squeezed it. And that squeeze told me everything. It said, keep up the good work, Katie. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

You’re probably wondering: what’s so impressive about this spunky little dance troupe? In the first place, the level of technical proficiency is tip-top. NBE dancers are en pointe by age twelve, and by the time they are 11th graders, they are doing virtuoso dance moves like triple pirouettes, double tours, and piqués manèges.
NBE student Briana Brown, age 17, gets a hug from first lady Michelle Obama.
But what really sets NBE apart is the children themselves. Simply put: these are not the kinds of kids you usually see in a dance studio.

Of NBE’s 300 students, 59% are African-American; 40% fall below the poverty line; and an additional 19% are living below the median income for the state of Tennessee. Many have been recruited from Memphis’s poorest neighborhoods and are attending the program on full scholarship.

“Look around our city,” says Smythe. “People think we have diversity—but the truth is that we’re still terribly separated. There’s a lot of anger, and it’s not going to fix itself.”

“When I started this,” she continues, “I wanted to build a place where kids could come and their skin color doesn’t matter, and their money doesn’t matter. I wanted to create a mini-city that we could hold up as an example for the rest of Memphis.”

Rachel Goslins is the director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the organization that gave Monday’s award. She says it was that kind of radical inclusivity that first drew her to NBE.

“You can’t help but be moved by these kids,” says Goslins. “They are staying in school longer, getting better grades, and going on to college at significantly higher rates than their peers. They’re building skills that will last them a lifetime.”

Growing up at Memphis’s Central High School, NBE director Katie Smythe says she was the beneficiary of intensive mentoring and after-school tutoring—what is nowadays called “creative youth development.” As a result, she was dancing professionally by the time she was 16. She went on to perform with the Minnesota Dance Theatre and US Terpsichore before returning to Memphis in 1997.

In other words: Smythe knows from personal experience that dance classes, by themselves, are not enough to ensure the success of her students. That’s why she provides wraparound services like mentoring, tutoring, transportation, homework support, college counseling, and nutritional support.

Nutritional support? That’s right. Smythe knows that many of her students don’t get enough to eat at home, so in the evening, she sets out a table covered with fruit, banana bread, and granola bars. It means a lot to parents like Georgia Todd.
“My job is to get these kids into college,” says NBE director Katie Smythe. “We want them to be able to walk into any situation—a boardroom, a hospital, a public school classroom—and feel empowered. We want them to be change makers.”
“I’m glad they’re doing it,” says Todd, whose sons Michael and Emanuel attend the after-school program. “It’s good, it’s clean. It’s keeping my boys out the streets.”

For many students, training at NBE begins at age seven. So it’s natural to suppose that the organization would have to wait a few years before seeing its first big success. After all, those seven-year-olds have to grow up—right?

But for NBE, superstardom arrived quickly, in the form of Charles Riley. When Riley, the son of a single mother in South Memphis, showed up at age 17, he was already an accomplished street dancer. But during his two years at NBE, he took ballet classes, where he learned to augment his natural talent with classical discipline and technique.

This month, he’s on the cover of The Wall Street Journal Magazine.

“Look at that line,” enthuses Smythe. She’s staring down at the glossy pages, referring to the way Riley’s body, photographed in mid-leap, seems to form one long, swooping line. “And the way his hips are level. He learned that here, you know?”

After graduating from NBE, Riley—or “Lil Buck,” as he has come to be known—moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with Yo Yo Ma and danced on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. These days, he models for GAP and performs with Cirque de Soleil. He even danced with Madonna during her 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.

Maxx Reed is another success story. The son of working-class parents from Whitehaven (“We had no money,” Reed explains), he attended NBE on a full scholarship. From there, the limber 25-year-old has gone on to dance with the likes of Beyoncé (“Run the World”) and Michael Jackson (This Is It).

“I credit everything I have to Katie [Smythe],” says Reed. “She personally spent so much time on me. I don’t think I would be a self-sustaining adult without her.”

Both Maxx Reed and Lil Buck will return to Memphis to perform in this year’s Nut Remix, which takes place on November 21-23 at the Cannon Center.
In this year’s Nut Remix, Brown plays a Mirliton, a technically demanding role that requires her to perform a series of rapid turns en pointe, culminating in a big jump.
Although many NBE students have gone on to great success in the arts, matriculating at prestigious dance programs like Harid Conservatory and NYU’s Tisch School, Katie Smythe knows that not everyone can be a Maxx Reed or a Lil Buck. For that reason, she is especially proud of the program’s college placement statistics. 100% of NBE students graduate from high school, and 100% are placed into colleges, conservatories, or dance jobs—many with generous scholarships.

“My job is to get these kids into college,” says Smythe. “We want them to be able to walk into any situation—a boardroom, a hospital, a public school classroom—and feel empowered. We want them to be change makers.”

Back at rehearsal, the battle between the nutcrackers and the Rat King has begun. The music shifts from Tchaikovsky to a techno remix of “Carol of the Bells,” and suddenly, it’s an all-out dance war, replete with break dancing, jookin’, and—yes—a bit of ballet.

At the side of the room, Briana Brown is warming up for her scene in Act II. A self-possessed 17-year-old with perfect posture and bright red lipstick, she’s been coming to NBE on scholarship since she was seven years old.

“I remember the first time I walked in here,” says Brown, who is standing at the bar, practicing her pliés. “I thought it would be a bunch of white girls, and I would be the lone wolf in the corner. But then I got here, and there were all kinds of people! And some of them looked like me.”

In this year’s Nut Remix, Brown plays a Mirliton, a technically demanding role that requires her to perform a series of rapid turns en pointe, culminating in a big jump. She says that dance will always be a part of her life—but next year, she hopes to attend the University of Memphis, where she will pursue a degree in journalism or communications.

“Honestly,” Brown says, “I don’t remember much of my life before NBE. It taught me how to express myself. It taught how to live in my individual self and feel like I’m a part of something that’s bigger than I am.”

“When somebody walks in here,” she adds, “we don’t see that they’re white or they’re black. We see that they came here to dance.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by John Minervini.