How Dancer Jamal Callender Started a Nonprofit in Barbados While Performing Full-Time

June 13, 2021

Born in the U.S. but raised in Barbados when he was young, Jamal Callender has graced stages around the world while dancing with Atlanta Ballet, Ballet Hispánico, Hubbard Street II, National Theatre Mannheim, Konzert Theater Bern and others. Often returning to Barbados during company layoffs to teach and perform, Callender saw a need in the community for equitable access to dance education. In 2014, while dancing full-time with Ballet Hispánico, he created the Barbados Dance Project. Now in its eighth year, the program offers a tuition-free summer intensive, a year-round dance lab and touring opportunities.

Callender recently spoke with Dance Magazine about what inspired the program, what went into creating it, and why he’s now passed along the torch.

Jamal Callender stands in an empty theater, his arms crossed and smiling, looking to the side as a light shines at the camera from behind his head.
Jamal Callender

Malte Papenfuss, Courtesy Callender

How Barbados Dance Project started

“In 2014 Barbados was still recovering from the recession, and finances for the arts sector were slashed to nothing. I felt it was my responsibility to give back. I was in a place of luxury dancing professionally and having summers off. My late grandmother propelled me to be connected to my community.

“The discipline, time management and ambition I learned from being a dancer translated to the business savviness I needed to create this grassroots project from the ground up.

“I didn’t follow the typical timeline of student, performer, teacher, onward; I did them all at once with the connections and resources I had.

“The funding for the program started as a Kickstarter campaign and eventually included support from the Barbados government. It’s difficult to run a year-round program without year-round money, but now, with community support, we can bring opportunity to everyone—not just to those who can afford it.”

The impact on students

“Students have gone on to major conservatories, international Broadway tours and concert dance. Even if they never dance again, they’ll have the tools and empathy to create some way to give back to their communities. Through Barbados Dance Project, they can now envision a dance world where people who look like them can succeed.”

The unexpected benefit of Covid-19

“One positive to come from the pandemic is the capability of Zoom. Pre-COVID-19, I could bring maybe four guest artists to teach and perform, and last summer we were able to have 18 international guest artists. We are no longer limited by location. Now we can offer a variety of insight and interaction with both local artists in the room and international artists online.”

Why he’s passed on the directorship

“I made the incredibly hard decision to transfer over the directorship two years ago. Working in Europe made it difficult to manage BDP, and I didn’t want to hinder the growth of the program.

“It’s now run by a dancer from the first summer intensive, Courtenay ‘Lian’ Thorne. She understands the importance of the work firsthand, and now has the chance to let her imagination run wild! I hoped the legacy would continue on because it’s not about Jamal, it’s about Barbados.”