How New York Theatre Ballet helps children soar
By Eileen Glynn
As a professional ballet dancer, 26-year-old Steven Melendez has traveled to Argentina, Estonia, and Japan. But his most unexpected journey was the one he made as a young boy—from a homeless shelter to the spotlight of the stage. Melendez was just 7 years old and living with his mother in a Bronx shelter when he became involved with New York Theatre Ballet’s LIFT Community Service Program.
Commonly known as Project LIFT, the program offers full or partial scholarships to children, approximately 30 per year, who are homeless or at risk. The awards allow these kids to engage in continuous study at Ballet School New York (the professional training academy of New York Theatre Ballet). Founded by NYTB artistic director Diana Byer in 1989, Project LIFT has given more than 600 children the priceless opportunity to dance, but has also provided basic essentials such as coats, books, tutoring, and medical care.
“An art form is about generosity. We give generously to an audience and I thought we should also contribute socially. Within a population that is struggling, Project LIFT finds kids with gifts and tries to let those gifts grow,” Byer explains.
Once I joined the school, I was in class with everyone else, and no one knew who I was or where I was from. It was comfortable—except for the part about having to wear tights. —Steven Melendez, former Project LIFT student
“When Project LIFT started, I thought teaching ballet to children from homeless shelters would be something I could easily contribute to their lives,” continues Byer. “I quickly found that classes were a means to many ends—not just to develop them as dancers or build up their artistic sensibilities, but to increase their self-esteem, improve their respect for authority, and lead them to discover that what really matters is how hard they work, not where they come from.”
Once enrolled in BSNY, the Project LIFT children are integrated into a student population of more than 120. “Once I joined the school, I was in class with everyone else, and no one knew who I was or where I was from. It was comfortable—except for the part about having to wear tights,” Melendez recalls with a laugh.
BSNY offers a rigorous training program that follows the Cecchetti syllabus. Byer maintains a professional atmosphere that instills a sense of discipline and motivation. “Students must speak and act appropriately,” she says. “I insist on proper grammar. Project LIFT is not just about free dance lessons; it’s about their education. We’re trying to give them all of the tools that they need in order to learn.”
Byer notices that students’ concentration and confidence levels improve dramatically after they begin dance training. “Children learn how to make eye contact. Their learning skills get so much better,” she says. “When working with dance and music, one has to quiet the mind in order to reflect upon what one is doing. It is hard for children to quiet their minds when their lives are in turmoil.”
In addition to taking weekly classes, children from Project LIFT perform in BSNY’s annual student recital, held in a local school or college auditorium. “Within their first year here, we put the children onstage. Many of them have never seen a dance performance before, and I don’t want them to think that dance is just an exercise program,” Byer says. Parents are encouraged to attend the recital and receive complimentary tickets if needed.
From age 8, students are also involved with NYTB’s Dance on a Shoestring performance series, held in the company’s home studio theater on the east side of Manhattan. Some students perform, while others learn about the production side of dance by assisting with stage management and lighting gel changes. Dance on a Shoestring also enables the students to observe the professional dancers of NYTB and the company’s guest choreographers.
A few talented students are selected to perform children’s roles in NYTB’s professional productions and tour with the company. Melendez recalls his excitement at being chosen to be a mouse in The Nutcracker within a year of beginning his dance training. Later, what began as a weekly class became a daily commitment when Melendez joined NYTB as an apprentice in 2001; he became a principal dancer in 2006.
“I never would have become a professional dancer were it not for Project LIFT. I knew nothing about dance. The truth is, I probably would not have been a lot of things because of the situation I was in,” Melendez says. “But I’m not sure that my professional outcome is as important to me as my personal development and the opportunity I had to grow up around the people I did. The greatest benefit to me has been my relationship with Diana and her interest in me as a child and as a dancer.”
In addition to professional dance training, supporters of Project LIFT provided Melendez with private education—first at Manhattan Country School and later at the Professional Children’s School. After graduating, Melendez performed with Argentina’s Ballet Concierto and Estonia’s Vanemuine Theater Ballet Company before returning to NYTB in 2010.
“I always come back to NYTB. It is where I grew up. It feels like coming home,” Melendez says. “Project LIFT becomes like a family; Diana becomes part of your family. She used to get my report card to make sure that I was doing well in school. She’d say to me, ‘Oh, you have a test coming up; did you study?’ ”
Today, Melendez assumes a mentorship role within BSNY. He is an especially effective role model for younger male dancers. “I teach the boys’ class and an upper class at BSNY. There is a real stigma against boys in ballet and kids get bullied at school. I tell them, ‘Tights are OK, but you can wear shorts if you want,’ ” Melendez says. Byer tells him which students are part of Project LIFT, he says, and she asks him to “make sure they get home safely and call them to make sure they get their homework done.”
In the future, Byer hopes to expand her facilities and enable the program to grow. “I’d love to have additional space and be able to affect more children. In the beginning, we had counseling for moms on the second floor. We offered everything from parenting advice to help finding a job, but it became cost-prohibitive,” she says.
Funding for Project LIFT originally came from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs; however, a decade later, the city discontinued its support. Byer, determined to carry on, secured funding through a combination of private foundations and government programs. Her efforts have garnered recognition from the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities and were recognized by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House in 1996. Over the years, several Project LIFT students have been awarded prestigious Van Lier Fellowships a total of seven times.
These achievements, while certainly laudable, are not what make Project LIFT a success. As Melendez explains, “the measure of success for a program like this isn’t that each child ends up in the arts—it’s that each child ends up being successful for themselves. For each person, the measure of success is going to be different. For some, it’s going to college. For some, it’s getting a job. For some, it’s staying out of prison.”
He marvels at a childhood friend from Project LIFT who is now headed to Thailand to do volunteer work. “You can only get to a place like that in life if you have the support and the help you need,” he says. “The real benefit of Project LIFT is the personal interaction with adults and people who care about you. They say it takes a village, and when everyone else already has a head start, the more help you can get, the better.”
Byer relishes hearing from former Project LIFT students. She describes a recent visit from a young woman who graduated from SUNY New Paltz a year ago, secured a full-time job, and is planning to pursue a graduate degree.
Only a few Project LIFT students have continued dancing. More important to Byer are the kids who have graduated from college. “They are often the first in their family to graduate from high school, let alone college. For me, that is a big success,” she says. “We’re working to give children who are gifted in dance a real chance at a dance career—but the bigger goal is to give them a real chance at a meaningful life.”