It’s 11:30 on a Wednesday morning in Boston’s South End. Outside, on the city’s narrow streets, there’s an end-of-winter chill in the air. But inside the five-story brick building at 19 Clarendon St., the mood is warm, vibrant and filled with excitement. The gleaming lobby bustles with parents and children, anticipation on their faces.
Watching all this, one can’t help but imagine that here, at the Boston Ballet School, everyone who steps through those double doors feels that same sense of wonder. There is something electric about the place.
While many recognize the Boston Ballet for its signature performances like The Nutcracker, what you may not know is that this renowned dance company welcomes thousands of students every year, many of them through the innovative programs offered by its Department for Education and Community Initiatives (ECI), which aims to cultivate a new generation of life-long lovers of dance and the arts.
ECI offers programs both at local schools and at Boston Ballet’s state-of-the-art studios in Boston, Newton and on the North Shore. The classes provide dance education and performance opportunities to students who might not otherwise be exposed to the arts.
“A lot of the programs we’re offering are designed to meet that need,” said Zakiya Thomas, Boston Ballet’s ECI director. Furthermore, these programs aim far beyond the stage to create confident young leaders who apply the principles and discipline of dance to everyday life.
On the first floor of the Boston Ballet School, piano music drifts into the hallway. In Studio 1, Jean Appolon is instructing a class of third-grade students, an equal mix of boys and girls, in the art of jumping. Several teaching assistants, including a Boston Ballet dancer named Daniel, demonstrate the technique. After a few moments, Appolon asks Dooseon Woo, the pianist accompanying the class, to stop playing.
“I’m still not satisfied because Daniel is not touching the ceiling,” he tells students. “You are younger, so you should be able to do that.”
Appolon, a Haitian-born dancer who teaches and performs extensively in the U.S. and Port-au-Prince, says this with a straight face. The young students get his humor, and they laugh. Even the casual observer can tell that Appolon is strict but fun, commanding both respect and admiration.
He nods to the piano player, who begins to work her fingers over the keys once again. The students jump in time with the music, working hard and having a good time doing it.
Appolon’s students, all from Boston Public Schools, are participants in Phase II of Citydance, a free “chance-to-dance” program that reaches nearly 3,000 third-grade students each year. These students have already gone through Phase I, in which Boston Ballet staffers visited their schools and presented an interactive workshop exploring self-expression, creativity and storytelling through movement. Select students were then invited to participate in Phase II, a 10-week course called Dance Discovery. The weekly 90-minute sessions expose students to the fundamentals of ballet and other dance forms.
During the Phase I workshop, Boston Ballet instructors work collaboratively with school staff to identify students with enthusiasm, body awareness and sharp listening skills.
On the North Shore, Phase II takes place on Saturdays at Boston Ballet’s Marblehead studio; in Boston, students are transported by Boston Public Schools to the Clarendon Street studio during school hours. And while dance is the medium through which the students learn, pliés and pirouettes are not the only things they are taught.
“From the moment they come off the bus, we are teaching them,” says Yo-el Cassell, Citydance program director. Among other things, the students learn to communicate, to observe and to express themselves creatively, and they develop a sense of self that comes with acquiring a new skill. “We want them to feel a sense of confidence,” says Cassell. “It’s really a way to get them engaged. Ballet is sort of the thing that connects it all together.”
About half of the students participating in Phase II will move on to Phase III, Intro to Boston Ballet School Experience, a five-week “gateway” course that helps students further develop their skills and learn more about Boston Ballet School’s curriculum and values. Approximately one quarter of these Phase III students go on to enroll in the Boston Ballet School on full and partial scholarships. “The school works very hard to offer scholarship opportunities,” says Cassell.
Started in 2002 as a joint venture with Boston Children’s Hospital, Adaptive Dance is a groundbreaking program for individuals ages 2 to adult who have special needs. Taught by Boston Ballet staff and supported by trained physical therapists, Adaptive Dance provides enrichment and fosters students’ social and physical development while helping them gain pride, confidence and leadership skills.
“The relationships here are huge,” says Portia Abernathy, Boston Ballet’s special needs programming manager. As a special education teacher and trained child counselor, she says she has seen firsthand how students have responded to Adaptive Dance, specifically students with Down syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Weekly classes in the Adaptive Dance program start just like any other dance class – with a warm-up – but usually end with applause and hugs, a thing Abernathy attributes to “a lot of group love. It’s this really beautiful sense of community,” she says. In between, students are exposed to live piano and drum music, have a chance to work one-on-one with musicians to practice rhythm, patterning and timing, and are offered free dance opportunities.
Currently the Adaptive Dance program operates out of Boston Ballet’s Newton and Boston studios, but to meet a growing need, classes will also be added to the company’s Marblehead facilities this fall.
At the conclusion of each semester, Adaptive Dance students perform a Spring Showcase, held at the Boston studio. Thomas says the performance validates for parents – who have often been told what their children with special needs cannot do – how capable the participants really are.
All ages of Adaptive Dance students perform together, giving parents with younger children a chance to see what’s coming up in the future, says Thomas. In addition, they hold other community performances: On April 11, they will perform with Boston Ballet company members at Boston’s Strand Theatre, and on May 2, they will perform at the Federation for Children with Special Needs Gala.
Every year, nearly 200 students in grades 6-8 take part in the programs Taking Steps and Boys in Motion, which focus on dance and self-development.
Boston Ballet introduced Taking Steps, a class focusing on creative movement for female students, in 2002. By 2010, the growing demand for an equivalent class for male students resulted in the development of Boys in Motion. Participating Boston Public Schools host the Taking Steps and Boys in Motion programs.
Not only do students receive instruction in ballet, they also experience a wide variety of other art forms, including hip hop, circus arts and acrobatics, and create their own movement during the one- to one-and-a-half-hour sessions. Through dance, participants also learn other valuable skills, such as proper presentation, how to work as a team and how to communicate.
Taking Steps is also offered as a tuition-based summertime program called Taking Healthy Steps. It is a two-week program with female students participating one week and males the next. The curriculum focuses on a variety of art forms, but the summertime program concludes with a student-run performance that friends and family are encouraged to attend. Here, students are given the opportunity to work with marketing and production personnel from Boston Ballet to learn what it takes to run a show.
The program also teaches students that anyone can be a dancer, says Terina Alladin, a trained dancer and teacher who manages Boston Ballet’s Secondary School programming. She recalls walking into a class ready to teach, dressed in yoga pants and a t-shirt.
“You’re a dancer?” a student asked incredulously.
“You don’t have to look a certain way to be a dancer,” Alladin told her.