Ballethnic’s uncommon blend of African and European dance
By Mary Ellen Hunt
The earthy grounding of African dance and the airy grace of ballet are not so far apart, philosophically or physically, at Ballethnic Academy of Dance. Founders Waverly T. Lucas II and Nena Gilreath have built a curriculum that offers both—as well as modern, tap, and hip-hop. But here the focus is as much on building character and developing the whole person as on teaching dance.
It’s the similarities between ballet and ethnic dance that are most interesting to Lucas, who came up with the name “Ballethnic.” “Between those two forms, you encompass every other aspect of dance,” he says. “While there is freedom in African dance, there is also specificity in the movement and in the placement, and I think sometimes people ignore the particulars of that. In classical ballet, you have those particulars—you try to find your own way of moving within the limits of the genre to present that in as creative and unique way as possible, while blending it with core, or the intent of work. In African dance, at times you have more expressive freedom, because that’s in its nature. But in classical ballet you have expressive freedom as well.”
“The way Mr. Waverly’s mind works is amazing to me,” says Savery Morgan, who has danced with the Ballethnic Dance Company since 2005 and, like all of the company members, also teaches in the school. “He has a fresh approach. It’s not as though he’s trying to create something new in the technique, yet he comes up with things that I’ve never seen before.” He says Lucas’ petit allegro has much in common with African dance footwork and that the quality of adagio in ballet is very much like the continuous movement taught in African.
The school’s roots
Located in East Point, Georgia, just south of Atlanta, Ballethnic’s studios occupy some 20,000 square feet, and Lucas and Gilreath are quick to note that owning the property has been a worthwhile investment. With three studios in the building, Lucas says the 150 students they serve bring the facility nearly to its capacity.
Both Gilreath and Lucas are former members of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Atlanta Ballet, and the philosophies and working styles of both companies have been instrumental in shaping the way they see their own company and school.
While there is freedom in African dance, there is also specificity in the movement and in the placement, and I think sometimes people ignore the particulars of that. —Waverly T. Lucas II
“Without the influence of Dance Theatre of Harlem, I don’t think there would be a Ballethnic,” Lucas says. “DTH not only set the foundation but also motivated us to believe in this concept, because it is an offshoot of their basic philosophy. That’s where we were introduced to the idea of blending classical ballet with African.” (A neoclassical ballet company formed in 1969, DTH showcased African American influences in works by such choreographers as Geoffrey Holder, artistic director Arthur Mitchell, and Vincent Mantsoe.)
“At Atlanta Ballet,” says Gilreath, “[Artistic director Robert] Barnett fostered a free-flowing, easygoing atmosphere, which was totally different from New York. Everybody at Atlanta Ballet cared about quality of life very much, and it was there that I learned that you could work hard and have a good time at the same time.”
Gilreath, who grew up in a blue-collar town in North Carolina and graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts, adds, “I liked the pride of being an African American doing ballet at a high level. I liked being proud of being a chocolate girl, and that experience guided how I wanted to influence girls of color.”
Starting a school that would encourage African American kids to study ballet, however, wasn’t a universally endorsed notion. Traditionally, ballet companies (and thus classes) have been predominantly white, a deterrent for children of color, especially those who are black.
“People said discouraging things,” recalls Gilreath. “ ‘You’re not going to get black kids in your school; they won’t do ballet.’ But we would play all kinds of music and mix that with ballet. Once the kids saw that ballet was no different from anything else, they weren’t so fearful of it.”
“Before I came to Ballethnic, as a young lady, my uniform was always pink tights,” says Jennifer Thomas, who began studying at Ballethnic at age 9 and now, at 30, is on the company’s board. “At Ballethnic we wore flesh-colored tights [that matched our skin tones]. It was such a small thing, but I think that gave me a special pride, because it said your complexion is a beautiful part of your artistry.”
Gilreath says, “We’ve had a bunch of bunheads and some kids who went on to be singers, play instruments; several people have gone on to Broadway. We’ve always said that tap will help with ballet, African dance will help with ballet. Our academy is all about building a diverse dancer, but our number-one priority is ballet. We believe that if you’re able to do ballet effectively, you can do anything else.”
“When I started at Ballethnic, I saw how passionate and talented all the students were,” says Thomas. “At the time I was a bit of a bunhead; I was disappointed to take off my pointe shoes. But everything about my technique was strengthened by taking these other classes. You only deepen your knowledge by learning about the whole body. You find out that you don’t have to be in some kind of silo and only learn one thing—that you shouldn’t be shut off to other ideas and opportunities. And that intellectual curiosity applies to so many other areas of life.”
Starting out: Ballethnicize
Over the years, Lucas has developed a teaching system he calls “Ballethnicize,” which incorporates elements of ballet, jazz, and modern African dance principles. Its form is flexible enough to adapt for a wide range of abilities, from adult students (who do a conditioning form of the Ballethnicize class) to preschoolers as young as 3 and a half.
Kiddie Ballethnicize starts with a musical section, in which drumming helps the students learn basic rhythm and appreciate moving with music. Next is center work, “so they gain an understanding of space,” Lucas says, “and we teach them about the fixed points of the room. After that they work on stretching exercises. With the kids, we use props to make it fun—I teach them to reach out to touch their legs to something. They learn that stretching isn’t a labor but a fun thing.”
The sequence progresses toward building more complex motor movements—hopping, jumping, skipping, galloping. And becoming acclimated to the stage is also part of the early training.
“Our kids learn early what upstage and downstage are, stage right and stage left,” Lucas says. “Because of all this, we can have our students dance in a professional production from a young age without needing to have bigger kids out there leading them, or teachers giving them instructions from the wings. We empower them by teaching them and expecting them to come up to a level of excellence. We teach every class with the expectation they can learn something that they can present back, because if they’re not learning things, then it’s just babysitting.”
When it’s time for more serious training, Lucas says, “We have to be careful not to kill their spirit. Our teachers are challenged to keep it fun. You want to be serious and have a purpose, but that reward has to be in there.”
A no-nonsense approach
In the academy, Gilreath and Lucas run a tight ship. Dress code at the studio, which includes flesh-toned tights and shoes rather than pink, is mandatory; hair ornaments, jewelry, and warm-ups are not allowed in class. In addition, students are expected to have a dance journal and a copy of Gail Grant’s Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet with them whenever they’re in class. The writing not only helps hone verbal skills, it adds a reflective component to the students’ work and emphasizes the seriousness of their dance studies.
“Ballethnic is not for everybody,” says Gilreath. “We are no-nonsense and straightforward. I’m going to say things that are not popular: ‘The work is the star; it is not about you.’ It’s all about the work, and that’s tough for people to hear.”
That said, many students are extremely serious about working. The school offers nine levels of classes that run from the pre-ballet Kiddie Ballethnicize class to a pre-professional Level A program. The Level A program includes nearly 11 hours of classes each week, including ballet, African dance, jazz, tap, hip-hop, pointe, men’s class, and pas de deux. The school also offers special workshops and classes in nutrition, makeup, costume design, dance history, and stage etiquette. Students in the upper level put in more hours, for rehearsals, if they are cast in dance productions.
“The kids might take as many as 15 to 20 class hours a week,” says Morgan, who teaches Vaganova-based ballet, modern, and jazz dance at the school. “We have kids who are extremely committed. It’s interesting that the ones who commit to that schedule are often the straight-A honor students too.”
“The discipline is something that will not be compromised,” Lucas says. “You must appreciate discipline, because it is what allows you to become successful. We feel that if we develop disciplined young people, they’re at that first stage of success. Add talent to that and you almost ensure success. If you don’t have extreme talent, but you have discipline, you’re going to figure out a way to become successful. That’s our basic, simple philosophy.”
This approach, Lucas says, allows dance to benefit each individual, no matter where the student’s talents lie. Schools that focus almost entirely on their very talented students, he says, “ignore the dancer who struggles, but who may be brilliant at something else. I want to maximize the potential of the person in whatever area they are in. We teach them that if you stand up straight, present yourself, and know how to make an entrance into a room, that’s the same concept as making an entrance onto the stage. You are being noticed, and that lesson can be transferred to any situation.”
As part of their outreach efforts, Lucas and Gilreath have created the Danseur Development Project, designed to encourage boys to consider studying dance.
“We’re trying to take young men off the streets and the basketball court and get them into the studio,” says Lucas, who recruits boys by talking with parents and taking male company dancers to visit football camps, where they give ballet demonstrations. “We want them to see that this can be your basketball, your baseball, your football as well. It is just as athletic, if not more so.”
The recruitment has been so successful that the school is able to offer regular pas de deux classes (which Lucas relishes teaching) as part of the curriculum. A significant amount of experience in partnering, unusual in small schools, gives the students a distinct advantage when they go to other pre-professional programs or college, Lucas points out. Plus, he adds, there is a social development aspect that has value beyond the studio.
“You’re developing gentlemen in pas de deux, and that’s something that young ladies and parents appreciate,” he says. “Most young men try to show how macho they are, but they don’t know how to be gentlemen, and this is what I want them to understand—that there is nothing effeminate about being a gentleman. That is the most masculine thing you can be.
“This commitment to young men and women makes their whole experience better,” he continues. “We would rather they engage with each other in the studio, where we can instill discipline and respect, than in the streets or mall, where anything goes.”
Prepared for life
Gilreath and Lucas are keen to teach their students lessons they can take into any career. A workshop series called “Beyond the Barre” teaches business fundamentals such as marketing, fund-raising, and public speaking, exposing students to another side of the arts world.
Thomas, who studied with Ballethnic through her college years but later went into law, says her experiences at the academy and with the company opened up a new world for her. As a board member, she now lends her legal skills and expertise and helps with fund-raising. And those lessons learned at Ballethnic continue to serve her, she says.
“There’s a discipline about being an artist that you can take into other areas of your life,” says Thomas. “You are prepared to be competitive. In a courtroom, you have to stand in front of a jury or a panel of judges and carry yourself with aplomb, which is the same as performing in front of an audience.
“Ballethnic doesn’t change the art form of ballet or African dance,” she continues, “but it brings you into it, makes you a part of it, and there’s something very special about that. I gained a sense of confidence as a teenager—of my own self and what I could achieve—and Ballethnic did that for me. It made me feel as if I were a part of something beautiful.”
Ballethnic, a professional company that blends classical ballet with African American and other ethnic dance forms, will perform The Best of Ballethnic April 22 to 25 at the Southwest Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
The company, based in East Point, Georgia, was formed in 1990 by Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas II, both formerly of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Atlanta Ballet.
For tickets or more information, call 404.762.1416 or visit www.ballethnic.org.