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Photo: Thomas Armour Youth Ballet
An unusual ballet company in Miami provides ballet, reading, math and etiquette classes along with access to mental health professionals as needed.

In the fall, my younger granddaughter will start ballet lessons in Rhode Island. “I’m going to be on the stage,” she announced to my neighbor. I’m not sure what, at age 4, ballet classes mean to her, but they have a mighty big aura.

In Miami, an unusual ballet company has been growing an even bigger aura. Thomas Armour Youth Ballet offers dance lessons, yes, but as I learned from this Miami Herald article by Rodolfo Roman, its goals extend well beyond dance.

“When sports journalist Claudia Chang Trejos faced a difficult period in her life, an after-school ballet program helped her overcome obstacles.

“Now, her daughter, Glades Middle School student Sophia Chang Trejos, 14, is following her mother, attending the after-school program at the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet in South Miami.

“The program provides ballet, reading, math and etiquette classes along with access to mental health professionals [and] delivers professionally taught dance classes in multiple genres, at little or no cost to 500 students ages 5-11.

” ‘When she started, I was going through a nasty divorce,’ Claudia said. ‘We were broke. I had no one to help me out with Sophia, so this was a place she could go to, and go with her peers. I went to work and I had a peace of mind.’ …

“ ‘Ballet is not for everybody,’ said Sophia, who credits the program with her getting into the New World School of Arts, the Miami-Dade arts magnet high school, where she will start in the fall.

“ ‘You can start when you are 4 and love it, but when you grow, the technique gets harder and that’s when people quit. What I like about ballet is it’s a different way to train a person. I like the music and the way people are when you are dancing. It is like a movie.’ …

“Director Ruth Wiesen said the program’s goal is to be a vehicle of success.

“ ‘Every now and then, I step back and I am shocked we are able to see these kids succeed and coming back to Miami,’ she said. ‘That is the biggest thrill. They come back, settle down and act like role models.’ …

“No matter what her future holds, Sophia said the program will always have a place in her heart.

“ ‘I plan on coming back when I am older, and teach classes to give back,’ she said.”

More at the Miami Herald, here.

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Photos: The Plié Project
Annalisa Cianci of Teatro dell’Opera di Roma models a paper tutu for a project highlighting diversity in dance.

Did you ever see the intriguing documentary by Vanessa Gould called Between the Folds? It’s about origami masters, and my husband and I heard about it because Vanessa’s parents lived in our town.

I have never advanced in origami myself — folded fortune-tellers are about as far as I go — but I have great admiration for artists practicing the craft. And not long ago I read an astonishing story about a project involving origami ballet costumes.

Leah Collins wrote at CBC Arts, “On paper, it’s a partnership that doesn’t immediately make sense. Pauline Loctin (a.k.a. Miss Cloudy) is an origami artist and self-described ‘folding warrior.’ Melika Dez is a photographer, one who specializes in capturing dancers in action. And around this time last year, the Montreal-based artists began collaborating on something they call the Plié Project: an ongoing series of photographs featuring dancers from internationally famed companies, all wearing original, hand-folded costumes by Loctin.

” ‘Paper is kind of fragile, but at the same time, it’s a very strong material,’ says Dez. Beauty and strength and fragility, all in one: that’s how you describe a dancer, right there. But who gets to be those things? …

” ‘In a world where the ballerina “has to look” a certain way, we decided to showcase the beauty of these unconventional but extremely talented dancers and break the boundaries of stereotypes.’

Amanda Smith, Daphne M. Lee and Yinet Fernandez Salisbury of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Dandara Amorim Veiga of Ballet Hispanico. 

plie-project

“Both artists have personal ties to the ballet, which partly explains their interest in the message. Loctin’s previous career was in classical music. The ballet, she explains, was always connected to her work. Dez is a dancer herself, and as a photographer, she shoots companies around the world, including the Black Iris Project in New York City.

” ‘In my work, I’m used to working with diverse people,’ says Dez. ‘There’s a wave of change that is happening in the dance world and it was important to me to push it forward because I myself, I’m a mix.’ …

” ‘There is a paper colour for every girl. … It was just an important message for me to put out there. For little girls to know that anything is possible no matter if they’re Black, white, Asian, Latina — anything is possible. They can do whatever they want as long as they put their heart into it.’ ”

More at CBC, here. There’s a terrific array of photos at the site.

Mai Kono of Les Grands Ballets. 

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Photo: Dezeen
A new prosthetic leg allows an amputee ballet dancer to go on pointe. The designer imagines whole dances on pointe.

Generations of little girls in my family have taken ballet classes, and probably each of them has spent more than an hour or two dreaming of life as a prima ballerina. After a while, though, little girls get interested in something else or the challenges become too daunting.

Now imagine just how daunting it would be for an amputee who is determined to dance.

Ali Morris writes at the design magazine Dezeen, “Pratt Institute graduate Jae-Hyun An has created a prosthetic leg that allows amputees to perform ballet like never before.

“Unlike regular artificial limbs, which are designed to mimic the human body, the Marie-T enables amputee ballet dancers to enhance their performance.

“Made up of three components, Marie-T features a weighty foam-injected rotational moulded foot, with a stainless-steel toe and rubber grip that help provide the dancer with balance and momentum during rotations.

“In mainstream ballet, dancers typically move in and out of the pointe position – when all body weight is supported by the tips of fully extended feet within pointe shoes.

“However, because of the immense strain on the foot and ankle of a performer, it is impossible for a ballet dancer to constantly perform in this position.

“Jae-Hyun An, who studied on the Pratt’s Industrial Design programme, designed the carbon-fibre Marie-T to enable amputees to dance on pointe throughout a performance.

“New York-based An said the design, which is named after 19th-century Swedish ballet dancer Marie Taglioni, could encourage amputees to develop a new choreography that has never been achieved by mainstream ballerinas.

” ‘I wanted to explore what would happen if you could allow a person to perform on pointe 100 per cent of the time,’ said An, who developed Marie-T over the course of four months. …

“During research, An realised that a weak ankle can twist and cause a ballerina in pointe position to wobble. In response, An designed a strong and stable ankle area that helps the ballerina stay in balance.

“The ankle connects to a slightly curved carbon-fibre limb which helps absorb the shock from the impact of the ballet dancer stepping forward. The limb is topped by a 3D-printed socket with steel round head screws.

“Ill-fitting prosthetic limbs can cause blisters and rashes on dancers, so An designed the Marie-T so that the parts can be easily switched out when they become well worn or need to be resized. …

” ‘In my research I came across Viktoria Modesta and she re-interpreted performance with her prosthetics. It was visually so powerful and opened a completely new area of prosthetics for me. I fell in love with the idea of designing something that could expand the artistic and cultural scene of a community with prosthetic users.’

“To continue developing this project in the future, An hopes to collaborate with an amputee dancer who has their own vision for prosthetic ballet.

” ‘The design of the prosthesis will change to fit the dancer, but also to match the specific movements of the newly developed choreography,’ he explained. ‘However, until I meet this dancer, I will continue to develop as a designer.’ ”

More at Dezeen, here.

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Photo: James Glossop
Scottish Ballet expands Dance for Parkinson’s classes to cities across the country.

The class that comes right before my Essentrics stretch class on Thursdays is for people with Parkinson’s. The participants seem to enjoy it. One man, who is said to be over 100, routinely leaves the class with a smile on his face.

Exercise classes for people with Parkinson’s are not new, but there are always new locations offering them and new techniques to help people keep moving. Consider, for example, this report from Scotland, where the Scottish Ballet has a program.

Jeremy Watson writes at the Times, “Research has shown that dance can help people with the degenerative disease physically, mentally and socially. [At the Scottish Ballet,] staff and volunteers help participants develop movement skills with particular emphasis on fluidity, balance, co-ordination and posture. The sessions include activities focused on problem solving, improvisation, vocal skills, memory and multi-tasking.”

The Scottish Ballet website adds background. “Established in 2016, the Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland programme supports those with Parkinson’s to experience the benefits of dance and creativity — improving balance, spatial awareness, confidence and fluidity in movement. Every week, around 75 participants take part in sessions delivered by Scottish Ballet in Glasgow and Dance Base in Edinburgh. …

“The warm and informal Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland classes feature elements of ballet and contemporary dance with a focus on Scottish Ballet’s repertoire. Using the themes and movement from current productions, specially trained Scottish Ballet and Dance Base Dance Artists lead participants to develop movement skills with particular focus on fluidity of movement, balance, coordination, expression, posture and rhythm.”

The Edinburgh Parkinson’s site says that the aims of the classes “are to

* wake up stiff muscles and improve flexibility,
* encourage mind-body connection,
* improve co-ordination and balance, and
* increase self-awareness and self-esteem
* in a supportive and joyful environment

“The social time at the end of each session is a chance to make connections and feel part of the dance community. … The teachers have a wonderful sense of light-heartedness and fun which they bring to the classes. Live music is an essential ingredient, and we have a talented pianist, Robert Briggs, providing the accompaniment, so the music is used flexibly to encourage movement and development of sequences. …

“The original concept, arising from collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group in New York, is now increasingly practised worldwide among the Parkinson’s community.”

Patients’ partners and caregivers attend the class that I’ve looked in on, and they are welcome to participate and get some exercise, too. The musical selections are great, but unlike in Scotland, there is not a live accompaniment.

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Photo: Social Candy
Milwaukee Ballet dancer and teacher, Janel Meindersee, tries out a wheelchair herself as she teaches her students. Parents watch with pride.

Heartbreaking as it is to see anyone make fun of a person with a disability, which does happen in these harsh times, it’s important to remember the advice that the mother of Mister Rogers gave him long ago: “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”

In Milwaukee, some unusual helpers are found in a dance company.

Amy Schwabe writes at Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel, “Nine-year-old Namine Eiche may be in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop her from being a ballet dancer. That’s thanks to Tour de Force, a partnership between Milwaukee Ballet and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin that’s been providing ballet classes to children with disabilities since 2014.

“Just last year, the opportunity was opened up to children in wheelchairs through the ‘Glissade’ class, very appropriately named since ‘glissade’ is the French word for ‘glide.’

“Janel Meindersee, a Milwaukee Ballet dancer who teaches Glissade, explained how the children are able to dance.

” ‘We teach a lot of the same things as a normal ballet class — how to spot your head when you move, the quality of arm movements, how to count music and how to stay in line when dancing together,’ Meindersee said. …

“Meindersee said that seeing kids in wheelchairs in other Tour de Force classes was the impetus for Glissade.

” ‘There was a girl in a wheelchair coming to one of our other Tour de Force classes,’ Meindersee said. ‘She was able to get out of her wheelchair sometimes, but she was most comfortable in her chair. We thought there had to be other kids who can’t even get out of their chairs at all. …

“After having taught two sessions of Glissade, Meindersee is ‘blown away’ by the skill, talent and strength of her students — especially when she gets in a wheelchair herself to try out the dance moves. She laughs with her students, pointing out that she’s not as skilled in wheelchair maneuvers as her students are.”

More at the Journal Sentinel, here. Just imagine the joy and self-confidence of these young dancers take home with them after a class. Perhaps some will join one of the professional wheelchair ballets someday. Or start their own company.

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Photo: Magda Saleh collection
Egypt’s first prima ballerina, Magda Saleh, as she is today and in ballets of
the 1960s and 1970s.

I like to include stories about Egyptian culture whenever I see them because of my special connection to two naturalized citizens who were born in Egypt. Here is an intriguing New York Times article by Brian Seibert about an Egyptian who excelled at ballet and even performed with the Bolshoi in Moscow.

“Once upon a time, the Egyptian ballerina Magda Saleh danced the dream role of Giselle in Moscow as a guest star with the mighty Bolshoi Ballet. …

“Recently, in the elegant Upper East Side apartment that she shares with her husband, the American Egyptologist Jack Josephson, Ms. Saleh, 73, recounted how her life had been ‘punctuated’ by shifts in Egyptian political history. …

“In the era just before she was born, Egypt was no longer a protectorate of Britain, but British influence was still high. Her father, who would become a prominent academic, studied agriculture in Scotland and brought home a Scottish bride, Ms. Saleh’s mother. Their children spoke English and Arabic at home, French at school. …

“Her first ballet teachers were British, and she traveled to Britain to study ballet. By then, though, Egypt had undergone a revolution and soon it was at war with Britain. Young Ms. Saleh was called home, where she discovered that her British instructors had left.

“But the Egyptian government was now friendly with the Soviet Union, and new teachers arrived. In 1959, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture created an Academy of Arts, with a Higher Institute of Ballet, and imported teachers from the Bolshoi to run it.

” ‘This was unprecedented in Egyptian history,’ Ms. Saleh said. ‘We have this very ambiguous attitude toward dance and especially women dancers …

“ ‘None of this would have been possible,’ she continued, ‘but for a confluence of time and circumstance and one man, the first minister of culture’ — Tharwat Okasha, an army officer with vision and tenacity. …

“Ballet education came filtered through translation, with old Russians who had fled to Egypt during the Russian Revolution converting the instructions of the newly arrived Soviet dancers into broken Arabic.

“Yet the school developed rapidly, and in 1963, Ms. Saleh and four other female students were offered scholarships to study at the Bolshoi in Moscow. She was 19 — or ’19 going on 11,’ she said, ‘because we were so sheltered.’ Now they were on their own in the bitter cold of the grim Soviet capital, sitting on radiators before class to thaw. …

“The experience was tough. ‘But character forming,’ Ms. Saleh said. ‘The Russians taught us with love. Not love for us. Love for dance. They instilled this in us.’

“Back in Cairo, diplomas in hand, they wanted to dance. So the ballet institute mounted ‘The Fountain of Bakhchisarai,’ a 1934 Soviet ballet about a Polish princess abducted by a Tatar Khan. The Egyptian public loved it. The president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, awarded the dancers the Order of Merit.

“Even more meaningful to Ms. Saleh was the praise of a poor old man after a performance in the southern backwater of Aswan. ‘People had insisted that Egyptians wouldn’t accept Egyptian ballet,’ she recalled misty-eyed. ‘But we were right!’ ”

Read more and see some lovely pictures at the New York Times, here — and also here, at Ahramonline.

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Photo: MediaPunch/REX/Shutterstock/
Prima ballerina Misty Copeland (right) and Raven Wilkinson at the Urban World Film Festival in New York City in 2015. Wilkinson has mentored many dancers since retiring from dancing at age 50.

Former ballerina Raven Wilkinson has shared her experiences — and her strength — with dancers of color since ending her own dancing career at age 50. She’s a great example of someone turning even bad experiences into something that sustains others.

Olivia B. Waxman writes at Time magazine, “In the years since she became the first black ballerina to be a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has become a well-known symbol of breaking down barriers in her art. The strides she has made build on the work of one particular dancer — a mentor of Copeland’s, Raven Wilkinson, who broke new ground in similar ways during the 1950s. …

“Wilkinson’s passion for ballet began at an early age and would take her around the nation with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. As the first African American ballerina to dance with a major touring troupe, she performed the coveted solo waltz in Les Sylphides.

“But her story — which is told in the new picture book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, written by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III … didn’t always feel like a fairy tale.

“Wilkinson, now 82, risked death and arrest by touring with the company in the South during a period when it was illegal for black and white dancers to share a stage. …

“As a native New Yorker, Wilkinson grew up only seeing the Ku Klux Klan in newsreels at the movie theater. It was through dance that she had her first real-life encounter with the group, in 1957 in Montgomery, Ala, while her company passed through the city on tour. …

“ ‘The KKK were everywhere. There was a convention,” Wilkinson recently recalled to TIME. “The [hotel] manager said, “You can’t dance tonight. Go to your room, stay in your room, lock the door, and don’t come out and don’t let anybody in.” ‘ There, she saw a cross burning outside her window. She says she wouldn’t have been able to get through … tense moments without her fellow dancers in the company. …

“After a brief stint in a convent to reflect on the path she had chosen, she moved to Europe, where it was easier for her to dance professionally. She danced with the Dutch National Ballet in Holland before returning to the States in 1974, where she danced with the New York City Opera until her retirement at age 50. …

“When TIME asked Copeland what has changed since Wilkinson was dancing professionally, she said ‘a lot is still so much the same. … We won’t be told to leave the company because our safety is at risk, but I had a similar experience being told to pancake my skin a lighter color to fit in with the rest of the company. … [Knowing Raven] made me feel really empowered not to let the negativity of racism even to this day affect me and my career. I can be strong and persevere and allow my talent to shine beyond the color of my skin.’ ”

It makes you think about the strength of character and the courage that barrier-breakers embody. The “poor, terrified girl” story melts away into the “young woman of steel” story.

More here.

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