Dance St. Louis community program exposes students to professionals

Where can public school students train with world-renown dance companies, such as Pilobolus and Alvin Ailey, for three weeks – right in their own schools?

Here are some clues. The city students are largely African-American. They perform at the Touhill Performing Arts Center when the three weeks are over. And they live near the largest river system in the country.

Got a guess?

Every semester for the past four years, Dance St. Louis has hosted two resident artists from a major dance company to live and teach in St. Louis for three weeks. The artists stay in a hotel. They teach in magnet city schools, University City High School and after-school programs, including Girls Inc. and Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club. And they lead hour-long training sessions; five days a week at the schools and once a week with the after school programs.

This semester 150 students participated.

“This program is unusual. We haven’t found another one in the nation,” said Janet Brown, director of operations and education for Dance St. Louis.

Brown said other cities offer residency programs, but the programs usually last for one or two days.

Chasity Hollamon, a senior at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, has benefited all four high school years from the residency program. She has trained with Alvin Ailey, Pilobolus, Complexions Contemporary Dance Company, Paul Taylor Dance Company and, most recently, River North Chicago Dance Company.

This past month, Hollamon trained with LaNita Joseph of River North, who focused on endurance.

“The combinations are meant to build your strength, and we do them constantly and over and over,” Hollamon said.

“It’s not often that you would get people from River North Chicago coming in. To have them push you and to see what it takes to be a company dancer, it’s a really great experience.”

With each resident artist who comes in, the students are better equipped to respond to the new styles that are presented, said Central VPA dance instructor Susie Morgan.

“It’s information that will help them when they go out to audition, or to decide on the style of dance company they want to apply for in the future,” Morgan said.

Every year several Central VPA students continue dance studies at colleges and universities. Some enter the audition circuits right away, but usually they continue their studies, she said.

Knowing this, the artists also talk about the variety of careers in performing arts and what it takes to make it in the industry. Some resident artists find ways to relate to the rest of the students’ curriculum.

The Alvin Ailey artists talked about African-American history and how that related to their famous “Revelations” piece.

River North Chicago tries to tell a story through dance, Joseph said. The piece she taught the St. Louis students shows the emotions of the African-American struggle: of not being black enough, or light-skinned enough, she said.

“It’s very important for people of color to be teaching these things in art and culture,” she said. “What dance does for the African-American community is it gives us more culture in terms of who we are and in our differences.”

Joseph talked in six schools throughout St. Louis, and 98 percent of her students were black. She also teaches in Chicago public schools, and she didn’t expect the students to be so serious about dance.

“Most of the kids that I’m teaching, most of them – 80 percent – want to be dancers,” she said. “They really want to be serious about it. They want to work as hard as they can to make it happen.”

The Dance St. Louis program started four years ago when Michael Uthoff, artistic and executive director of Dance St. Louis, and Janet Brown were both new to the organization. At that time, Dance St. Louis already had a residency program, but it was only a couple days long.

“We felt that the students needed a deeper experience that wouldn’t just be exposure, it would be education,” Brown said.

The program is funded through the National Endowment for the Arts and corporate sponsors.

“Every year this is a big job for us to find funding for it,” Brown said. “It’s an intensive program and it’s an expensive one, but we think it’s worth it for what it brings to the St. Louis area.”

Dello Thedford, artistic director at Central VPA, said the program has done wonders for their students and community.

“Many of our young people not only dance here at Central, they dance in the community and many in their churches, which is a tremendous piece of the community,” he said.

“They take what they learned here from the professional companies and take it back to their smaller communities.”

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