NOTE: I wrote this story as a freelance writer for the Miami Herald in 1995. I reproduce it exactly here as perspective on my just posted storyFull Circle – Choreographer Christopher Rudd returns to Miami with Dance NOW!
EXPLORING BALLET, A FIELD OFTEN CONSIDERED OFF-LIMITS FOR BLACKS, THESE YOUNG MEN TAKE A LEAP OF COURAGE.
Reporter: JORDAN LEVIN Special to The Herald
Publication: THE MIAMI HERALD Edition: FINAL Section: LIVING Page: D1
Last Printed: 9/5/1995
Ruth Wiesen remembers the day the light went on in her head. It was 1985, and she had just finished overseeing a performance by Miami Ballet’s all-white, all-girl junior company at one of the inner-city elementary schools the troupe visited frequently, when a little girl came up to her.
“I want to be a ballerina, too, ” the child said. “But I know only white girls can be ballerinas.”
“It was a rude awakening, ” says Wiesen, 42, who teaches at the Miami Conservatory, the feeder school for Florida Classical Ballet (formerly, Miami Ballet). “Here was a whole population who felt this art form wasn’t within their reach.”
So she set about proving it was, and, 10 years later, in the auditorium of South Miami Middle School, the results of her efforts are tearing up the stage. The capacity audience, which has just received a severe lecture on appropriate behavior during the student dance performance, erupts into screams as the visiting guest stars — five African-American boys trained in Wiesen’s scholarship program at the conservatory — triumphantly bound the width of the tiny stage, their heads perilously close to the lights overhead.
It is a hero’s welcome, and it demonstrates how far these boys — Chris Rudd, 14; brothers Dawhone, 16, and Quashone Perry, 17; Kevin Whitaker, 16, and Clarence Sams, 15 — have come.
At the time she faced that little girl’s sad certainty, Wiesen had noticed that students with money for private lessons did better in auditions and classes than similarly talented youngsters who could afford to study only in public-school programs. She approached Thomas Armour — the highly respected, 85-year-old former Ballet Russe dancer who has run the Miami Conservatory for 33 years — and asked him: If she sought out talented students at Dade County’s magnet schools, would he give them free classes?
Armour said yes. “If anyone wants it that badly, they should be helped, ” he says simply.
In the decade since then, some 200 students have come through the conservatory’s scholarship program. Currently, they comprise more than 30 of the school’s 180 students.
The five boys on stage at South Miami Middle School are among Wiesen’s first students. She discovered Rudd as a fourth- grader at Perrine Elementary, the Perrys as seventh- and eighth-graders at South Miami. Whitaker, also from South Miami, started dancing after seeing the Perrys and was then invited into the program by Armour. Sams was referred to the program by a friend of his mother’s who had seen him dance at parties.
Wiesen can point with justifiable pride to their accomplishments. During the 1994-95 arts season, the boys twice brought down the house at Miami‘s Gusman Center in performances choreographed for them by international ballet star Fernando Bujones, the newly hired artistic director of Florida Classical Ballet. In June they performed at the nationally televised Inner City Games in Miami. Four of the boys attend the New World School of the Arts, and this summer, for the second year in a row, Rudd and the Perrys received full scholarships to the acclaimed summer dance program at New York’s Dance Theater of Harlem. (Whitaker stayed home for summer school and Sams was on probation from Wiesen’s program due to disciplinary problems.)
“I’ve seen all of them experience success and admiration, ” says Wiesen. “They know they’ve made it to where they are — that people admire them — because of what they’ve done. Just getting in there and grinding it out every day.”
While they earnestly credit their many teachers, the boys are profoundly aware of what Wiesen has done.
“The teachers before (taught) because it was their job, ” says Rudd. “Miss Ruth and the conservatory, they did it because they wanted to, not because they had to. They put their heart and soul into it.”
Adds Quashone: “Now that I realize how important the scholarship was for me, every time I take class, I think, ‘Why not give it back? Why not give back what they gave to me and become better?’ ”
Not all have succeeded equally. Although Sams is back in the scholarship program this fall after his summer probation, he was not readmitted to New World School after the 1993-94 year because of behavior problems and poor grades.
All of the boys, however, have had to struggle with racial prejudice and mockery from their peers and, on occasion, adults.
The fact is, they are African-Americans in an art form that is still overwhelmingly white. “There is still a stigma against young black men doing this, ” says Danny Lewis, dean of dance at New World. The assumption is that blacks don’t dance ballet; they dance jazz or hip-hop.
“There aren’t too many black dancers who are succeeding, ” Quashone says.
His brother, Dawhone, is more blunt. “White people and black people have told me that ballet is not for black people. Street dance is for black people, ” he says. “It’s ‘I can’t dance ballet because my butt’s too big.’ Some white girls say, ‘We can’t do street dance because we’re white.’ ”
Wiesen is intensely aware of this and sometimes cringes for the world she represents. She notices that the boys are followed when they go into stores with her, that she couldn’t find a “Congratulations” card that didn’t have white people on it. Then there was the mother who insisted that a costume Rudd wore be cleaned before her son wore it.
Which is why, she says, the boys’ experience with Dance Theater of Harlem was so important.
“They know white men can make it, ” Wiesen says. “But here’s Dance Theater of Harlem, with all these incredible black male dancers who are so proud and so secure in themselves, who dance without any reservations and have made it internationally.”
“We put a great deal of effort into being role models, ” says Keith Sanders, the DTH assistant ballet master who taught the boys this summer. “Even in 1995, companies across the country have one or two or no black dancers. There is still a generation of young people who don’t see people like themselves doing what we do.”
But Sanders doesn’t see that as a problem for the Miami boys. “They seem to be very focused and concentrated young men. Unquestionably, they could have professional careers.”
DTH Director Arthur Mitchell clearly thought the same when the boys attended one of the company’s master classes in spring of 1994. He offered them the summer scholarships on the spot. “I thought wow, ” Rudd recalls. “I had just thought of us as good for our age. I never thought of ourselves as really good.”
He and the Perrys say the intensity, professionalism and serious attention they received at DTH has been inspirational. “The teachers tried to get us to push ourselves, ” Quashone says. “They told us they were very proud to have us there.”
That support goes a long way toward mitigating the reactions of some of their peers to the concept of black boys who dance. In tights, no less.
Boys older than the sixth grade are often “so threatened by seeing the boys up onstage that they either laugh at them or hate them, ” Wiesen says. “It’s vicious.”
Rudd remembers being mercilessly teased as the only boy in dance class at Perrine and tells of another boy who quit because he couldn’t take it.
They all remember being laughed at.
But now, Whitaker says proudly, “after they see what we can do, and that they can’t do it, they don’t laugh anymore.”
This and comments like it offer evidence of a growing self- confidence, determination and self-respect — all by-products of Wiesen’s commitment to develop more than well-trained dancers. She has not given them just scholarships. She’s talked them through the times they wanted to give up, driven them to class and rehearsal, let them sleep in her home when there was a late-night or early-morning showcase, made it her mission to keep them dancing.
“I thought about what I would do if I didn’t have dance, ” says Rudd. “And I realized that dancing was a completion of me. Before I had my body, but there was a piece of it missing. And the part that was missing was dancing. I don’t think life would be worth anything without it.”
Rudd, the Perrys and Whitaker all talk eagerly about their training, their ambitions, their dreams: to join DTH, to show the world black men can dance ballet, to choreograph, have a company, a studio, maybe one especially created for young black dancers like themselves.
These are not pie-in-the-sky dreams, either. “Their talent is still raw, but there is so much wonderful energy behind it, ” says Lewis, the New World dance dean. “If you can work like that, and you have the God-given talent — which I think they do have — then, yes, they’re going to make it.”
“They’re so much more expressive in every way, ” Wiesen says proudly. “I think a lot of it is the confidence that they have. They made their own success. All we did was give them an edge, a place to be successful.”
If Kevin Whitaker had his way, he’d give Ruth Wiesen much more than even that.
“I want to give her the world, ” he says. “Because she just gives so much.”