How did its teaching artists find their way to New Ballet Ensemble and School? For LeAnthony Douglas, it was hip hop. London Bruce was introduced to the company through theater.
No two paths were the same, but many came first as young students.
Tomisha Edwards' middle-school church youth group took a week of New Ballet
dance classes. As a youth, she also rehearsed musical dance numbers there with Hattiloo Theatre, which is one of several community organizations that rents space at the New Ballet studios. After spending several years away from Memphis earning a degree in dance and working as a professional dancer, Edwards returned to the company as a teacher three seasons ago.
Tomisha Edwards slays the crowd in a performance of Nut Remix with New Ballet Ensemble and School. The organization offers classes in ballet, tap, hip hop, West African dance, and jookin for all ages and skill levels. (Submitted)
“There’s something rewarding about teaching in your hometown,” said Edwards. “I had those special people in my life who introduced me to dance and now I get to be that person for somebody else," said Edwards.
These performers-turned-teachers are passionate and talented. They could find success in a bigger city with more performance opportunities, but they've chosen to stay in Memphis.
“New Ballet is home,” said Bruce. “Especially when you’ve grown up in the program from such a young age—you build friendships, you build a love. It’s such a family environment that it attracts you and makes you want to stay.”
Katie Smythe is the founding CEO and artistic director of New Ballet.
“To see the students come successfully through our program to become employees and wanting to stay and contribute to the next generation, is delightful,” said Smythe. “They are built-in role models for the younger students and dancers. It’s a great bridge because the artists who stay understand our culture so well.”
Everybody Dance Now
Its name says ballet but the school offers a range of classes including creative moment for preschoolers, tap, hip hop, West African dance, and jookin for all ages and skill levels.
Smythe launched the organization in 2001 with a hope to serve underprivileged youth.
LeAnthony Douglas is a former student of New Ballet Ensemble and School who is now a professional dancer and instructor. The school is committed to making dance more accessible for underserved youth in Memphis. (Submitted)
“In many cities like Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, the majority of people who fall below the poverty line are African-American,” she said. “I wanted to very intentionally reach out to children of color who didn’t have the economic means to participate at a high level the same way I did as a child.”
“We got to go abroad to train and our parents paid for it,” said Smythe of her own experience with dance training in her youth. “There were no people I knew of who were economically disadvantaged who had access to that.”
Smythe emphasized the value of performers and teachers who look like the community they serve. She also noted the undeniable connection between economic standing and race.
The school offers scholarships
to students with financial hardship. According to their website, 40% of New Ballet's students attend on scholarship.
“That was me,” said Douglas of the kids studying on scholarship. “I had a hip hop audition with Shamar Rooks, and I got in as a hip hop dancer when I was in third grade. I met mentors and other dancers who inspired me. It was a chain reaction effect because now my students say they want to be just like me.”
A 2020 Pivot
During any other year, the teaching artists arrived at the studio in the morning to take classes and rehearse for upcoming performances. In the afternoon, they taught their own classes at the studio or off-site at partner schools like Dunbar Elementary, Larose Elementary, Overton High, or Immaculate Conception Cathedral School.
For the safety of students, faculty, and staff, this year has been very different.
“We cut off in March when COVID happened and went straight to Zoom,” said Douglas. “It’s a different energy not being in the room, being at home instead of being in the studio.”
“COVID has changed everything," said Edwards, who's using Microsoft Teams for her classes with Overton High students. "Technology sucks sometimes, but it’s really nice to see them and maintain that connection,” she said.
Bruce said the digital divide has been a major issue for some families. A lot of her students don't have access to a phone, computer, or the internet in their homes.
In September, New Ballet began to hold classes in person again with strict safety protocols.
“At least I am seeing them every day. It was hard not being there,” said Bruce.
London Bruce (right) is a former student of New Ballet Ensemble and School who is now a professional dancer and instructor. (Submitted)
Memphis is Going Places
The pandemic also put a halt to traveling for training. Douglas has traveled as far as Italy for dance, and he can’t wait to do it again. Bruce is also eager to travel.
“Both me and LeAnthony were supposed to go to New York this spring to train at American Ballet Theatre,” she said.
Edwards attended the same ABT training a few years ago. She's enthusiastic about representing Memphis dance when she can once again travel for the company.
“I feel very honored," she said.
Bruce and Douglas are determined to go to the training as soon as things start to reopen. When they return, they'll bring the new skills they learn to their New Ballet students.
“We will be on the next plane out," said Bruce.