For nine years, the New Ballet Ensemble’s presence in Orange Mound has changed the lives of students and parents. Now, the organization’s leaders are working to double their footprint in the neighborhood.
This year, NBE will partner with Melrose High School to begin the process of creating a dance studio in the building’s old ROTC room to offer more dance lessons.
Programs at the NBE Lab will focus on urban dance and hip-hop with elements of ballet. Recruitment efforts will target male students.
“I’m always excited about external partnerships and providing students an opportunity to engage in fine arts,” said Mark Neal, principal of Melrose High School. “I’m excited about any partnership that expands students’ opportunities.”
Precious Price, Nokomis McElroy and Asya Miles practice at New Ballet Ensemble's studio in Cooper-Young. (Andrea Morales)
In Orange Mound, NBE strives to develop students by implementing a high professional standard in dance classes and also by serving as a creative youth development organization providing academic support and mentoring services.
The programs they implement in the neighborhood take a holistic approach to each student and create access to opportunities through dance. NBE provides transportation and scholarships for participants who have the desire and potential to pursue dance and that help getting to NBE’s studio in Cooper-Young at 2157 York Avenue.
NBE’s dance school enrolls nearly 350 students, and 80 of those students are from Orange Mound.
Melrose will not be the first school that NBE has reached into for direct access to students. In 2008, NBE began the Dunbar Elementary School dance residency, where students at the Orange Mound school receive free dance lessons during the school day.
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Students that show potential to progress into professional dance through NBE partnership programs like the ones at Dunbar are invited with a scholarship to come practice at the NBE studio.
In 2015, NBE opened the Panda Resource Center at Dunbar Elementary with the goal to connect parents of the dancers to community resources, financial literacy, adult education and opportunities for creative expression. As a result, enrollment and retention among the students increased.
“I’ve always loved the community, I have family ties to it from growing up here and having parents with friends from Orange Mound,” said Katie Smyth, CEO and artistic director of NBE. “I’ve always had heartstrings for Orange Mound.”
Nokomis McElroy stands for a portrait in Orange Mound. (Andrea Morales)
Smythe said she and the NBE dance teachers plan to reach about 15 to 20 additional students in the first year of the new program at Melrose High.
The facility at Melrose High will follow a similar formula to Dunbar Elementary, but the partners and programs may evolve to meet the unique needs of teenagers and their families, said Smythe, who said she anticipates programs about gang prevention. Classes will begin in January and a parent resource center is to come when state and local grants align.
Among the teachers at the new facility will be recent Melrose High graduate and current NBE company member LeAnthony Douglas, who began dancing through NBE’s Dunbar Elementary program when he was seven years old.
Since then Douglas has danced with various esteemed musicians and choreographers all over the including a performance in 2014 in Washington, D.C. at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and in 2015 at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York.
LeAnthony Douglas stands for a portrait in Orange Mound. (Andrea Morales)
The first time Douglas ever danced was at an audition at Dunbar Elementary. Shamar Rooks, a hip-hop and Jookin’ instructor, performed for students. After the performance, he invited students to audition.
“I was trying to copy his moves and he said I have potential. He told me ‘You can dance. You have a future.’ I had never seen it before and I wanted to try something new,” Douglas said.
As Douglas’ dance skills improved and he advanced at NBE, his dance instructor encouraged him to take ballet classes, a decision he said he’s glad he made.
“I had plenty of instances where I wanted to quit dance because growing up in Orange Mound, I was teased a lot about dance. People would tell me that I wasn’t supposed to be dancing, that I was supposed to be playing basketball or football because I was good at it,” he said.
When you actually learn how to do ballet, it makes you a different person.”
When he received a full scholarship to study at the Tennessee Governor’s School for Arts and starred in a commercial for Memphis Travel, Douglas’ peers starting taking him more seriously.
TGA is a competitive four-week summer residency program for gifted students in the arts. Students are known to continue their studies at places like Julliard School and the New York University Tisch School of Arts. Some also work as designers, actors and dancers on Broadway.
Douglas said attending is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
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In high school, Douglas said he didn’t talk about dancing to many people and few people knew, but teachers and students eventually saw the commercial.
Then, the entire school knew.
“After that I could be walking down the hall and someone would jump in front of me and start Jookin’ and saying thing like, ‘I can do that,”’ he said.
LeAnthony Douglas stars in the commercial "Jookin' Through Memphis", produced by the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In the future, LeAnthony said he plans to open his own dance studio in Orange Mound. Meanwhile, he attends college and is a company member at NBE.
Alternatively, 16-year-old ballerinas Asya Miles, Nokomis McElroy, and Precious Price all have plans outside of the dance realm once they graduate from high school, but said that participating in NBE has affected them in a positive way.
All three girls were raised in Orange Mound. They attend Overton High School and began dancing together at Dunbar Elementary.
Miles, who wants to join the Naval Academy, said the program introduced her to diverse people.
“When I dance, I feel free, pretty and graceful,” she said.
McElroy, who describes herself more as a converted dancer interested in Flamenco, African dance, ballet, contemporary, modern and majorette dance said she plans to go to medical school to become an OBGYN and may minor in dance in college.
Precious Price practices at New Ballet Ensemble's studio in Cooper-Young. (Andrea Morales)
“[Growing up in Orange Mound] made me become humble because I see where I could have been with students who don’t do anything after school other than get a job or stay at home with their siblings,” McElroy said. “Instead I get to come here and dance for free.”
Price said when she graduates next year she’s going to college to become a radiologist and will dance on the side. She credits participating in NBE with helping her to become a well-rounded and open person.
She said she’s more responsible and that her views of the world may have been different if she hadn’t danced and broadened her perspective outside of Orange Mound.
“When I dance I feel like a new person. If I’m not comfortable in a setting or an environment, I’m not going to say anything, but when I dance I can move and do anything I want,” she said. “I love it.”