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Volume 24, Number 10 — November 2017

Kingsport's "Ballet Girls"

"The Arts — Changing Lives" through Outreach Program

By Bertina Dew, Executive Director of Kingsport Ballet | July 26, 2011

With hands eagerly stretched toward the rafters, a room full of girls yell, "I do, I do! Me, me!" Ranging in age from six to young teens, they eagerly use their entire bodies to express their interest to be "the ballet girls."

Crooked ponytails and a patchwork of outfits show signs of all-day wear, in school and after school, without a thread of hope of getting any cleaner or neater as the day progresses. Much like hurriedly hung laundry on a line tugging to and fro in crosswinds, the eager chorus of girls sway and wiggle with excitement.

The evaluation at the after-school center always starts out as a loud event. Most girls, and the occasional boy, are jumping out of their skins to be picked to take ballet class in Kingsport Ballet's free outreach program. At first they want it so badly they don't fully understand what we mean when we use the word "commitment." This is not one class, we explain, you sign up for the whole school year. If you say "yes" you are in for the duration.

"Am I in? Did I make it? When do we get our tutus?" they beg to know with looks ranging from self-doubt to wide-eyed anticipation. They have the bug, and nothing we say will keep them from vying for the chance to be in ballet. Everyone will be able to take ballet class, we tell them. First you will be fitted for ballet slippers, leotards and skirts, and then classes will begin.

Most have never seen a ballet, much less had a real ballet class, but whatever versions or interpretations of classical ballet they may bring with them, the next year will give them a taste of reality. All that light-as-a-dragonfly flitting on stage wearing beautiful, sparkly tutus, daintily flicking a wand, is indeed sweaty, hard work. There are bleeding blisters and ice bags and muscle strains and dancing through tendonitis involved, but for now, it's all about the "pink and fluff." For now, the soft, white leotard and ballet slippers are the prize.

The year that follows has very different things in store for more than 50 girls. It's a bit like sitting down hungry at a fine meal: the all-important vegetables come with the package, and look less and less appetizing the fuller you get. The challenge for some of "the ballet girls" can be simply not talking out of turn. For others, learning the difference between pointing and flexing a foot can seem trying. While for others the obstacle can be holding the shoulders down, the back straight, the hips turned out, the knees straight — all at the same time — while not looking down at the floor and turning the palms up to the ceiling.

A first-year ballet class for the outreach girls is a learning and growing place. They begin to understand there is a process which requires order. They are asked to be open to learning, respect the teacher and other classmates, and have respect for the art form itself. The crisp white leotards and skirts; the pristine, tawny-pink ballet slippers; and perfect little buns quickly give way to the randomly hung laundry of evaluation day. After a year of plies, tendus, and seeing a real ballet for the first time, some decide to trade in the soft suede soles of ballet slippers for the hard, tough ones of basketball sneakers. Others come closer to understanding. Others want more.

The program's main focus is to introduce under-served children to ballet and the benefits of studying a classical art form. A secondary goal is to introduce them and their families to the enjoyment of ballet performance. We want to give them what they otherwise would not have the resources to get and, as a result, open a door into a different world, apart from the cacophony of the gym or the sand of the playground at the after-school center. Each year a few children remain in the program, and become incorporated into the curriculum on scholarship. They soon ask to take jazz or modern dance, too. They begin taking ballet class twice a week, then three, then four and five times per week. They evolve from soft ballet shoes to pointe shoes and eventually come out of the demi-plie stages into the arabesque and grand battement world of French ballet terminology. They become Company members, take part in full-length ballet productions, and can tell their parents the style difference between Swan Lake and Giselle, between a soft and hard shank, the purpose for rosin, the difference between the Prologue and the Coda, and trade secrets such as why you use baby powder to put on your pointe shoes.

One girl, whom we will call Alicia, is one such student at Kingsport Ballet. A sweet and quiet girl, Alicia was no different, perhaps just a bit calmer, than the group from the after-school center, bouncing eagerly to take their first ballet class. Not particularly athletic or strong, Alicia was a typical 9-year-old with a pretty face, a little soft in the middle, bitten by the infectious interest in the pink and fluff. Six years ago it was a challenge for mom or grandma to bring Alicia to the studio independently from the scheduled van trips the center provided. Being able to make extra rehearsals or additional classes was a logistical strain on the limited resources of the single-parent, small family. Fast forward....today Alicia stands a tall, strong, confident ballerina with ballet-chiseled muscles; a full member of the Company, social and happy, well-adjusted and committed to the art form. She juggles the demands of school and everyday dance instruction like all the other girls at her level, bringing homework along on the days of rehearsals, making smoothie runs before class, and planning her social life around her studio life.

For Alicia, the school-girl dreams of pink and fluff were transformed into the pursuit of excellence. A committed dancer seems to have that inner drive to make that foot a bit more arched, that leg held a bit higher, the back a bit stronger, and the next production's part on the cast list a bit juicier. These goals keep her coming. She now knows that it takes years to be able to get your pointe shoes, has seen for herself that the sparkly tutus get drenched with sweat during a performance, and that "ballet" isn't randomly running around to music. She has seen many professional ballerinas dancing next to her on the stage who are breathless and sore after their workout under the hot, bright stage lights while being perceived by the audience as ethereal and graceful. She understands that anything you pursue that you want to be great at has to be tied to hard work, practice, and commitment. It doesn't happen randomly, in a vacuum, or with the waving of a magic wand.

Alicia's continued success and future path is unknown, but chances are that whether or not she stays with ballet, the ballet experience will stay with her. And in 10 or 20 years she may well be in a position to inspire, teach, or introduce another young girl with limited resources to not just an art form, but to a way of life — a way of looking at the world so that pink and fluff merge with blood and sweat to produce effective results full of dividends, that may be cashed in for a rich, successful future.

Kingsport Ballet's outreach program is DANCE CO (Developing Artists and Nurturing Cultural Education through Community Outreach). DANCE CO serves an average of 50 new girls each year through a partnership between Kingsport Ballet and the Boys and Girls Club of Kingsport, as well as Girls Inc., depending on the level of secured funding. The program, implemented in 2003, has been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kingsport Community Foundation, Mooneyhan Foundation, Rotary Club of Kingsport, Massengill DeFriece Foundation, East Tennessee Foundation, and the City of Kingsport.