Making It Happen: LEAPing Toward Change

DFA student Byron Klassen, supported by fellow students Nathan Bartman (left) and Lewellyn Afrika. Photo by Annie Colbeck, Courtesy Ramsay.

Eight years ago, former ABT soloist Kristine Elliott attended a screening of the documentary Guguletu Ballet. It told the story of Dance for All, a school in Cape Town, South Africa, founded in 1991 by former ballet dancers Philip Boyd and his late wife, Phyllis Spira. Living in a segregated country where the ranks of ballet companies were effectively closed to black dancers, Boyd and Spira wanted to change the racial landscape of concert dance in South Africa. They founded DFA to bring dance training to disenfranchised children of all races in the impoverished townships surrounding Cape Town. The early years of their project coincided with the overturn of apartheid.

“I just felt compelled to go," says Elliott, who is based in northern California, of her reaction to the film. “I saw that DFA's discipline and training were making a difference in these kids' lives. This was a place where I could offer something." In 2004, after speaking with Kristin Pichaske, the director of Guguletu Ballet, and connecting with Boyd, she traveled to Cape Town on what would be the first excursion of many as a teacher for DFA. “I've been going back ever since."

Last year, when Elliott made her annual trip, she wasn't alone. Six other teachers from the U.S. joined her, through a course she co-created at LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals), a degree program offered through St. Mary's College of California designed for current and former professional dancers. As a result of this course, Elliott's initial impact has expanded exponentially.

“This is exactly the way I had hoped it would be: exponential," she says. “Because of the power of one, then it becomes six, and then more, and it keeps growing."

Over the years, Elliott (who also teaches ballet at Stanford University) has enhanced Boyd's already vital work with her generosity and her ties to the U.S. dance world. She has brought not only her expertise as a ballet teacher but also contemporary choreography from West Coast artists like Robert Moses, Amy Seiwert, and Richard Gibson, not to mention dance clothes, ballet shoes, and CDs for class. A graduate of LEAP herself, she had conducted independent study research on South Africa as part of her B.A. degree. LEAP founder Claire Sheridan wanted to continue supporting her work in Cape Town. So in 2010, Sheridan proposed the idea of co-teaching a summer course that would bring a small group of LEAP students to teach ballet, jazz, partnering, choreography, yoga, and repertory at DFA for two weeks in June 2011.

Of the 40 students who applied, six were selected. Among them were San Francisco Ballet soloist Garen Scribner and former Smuin Ballet dancer Olivia Ramsay. Prior to the trip, they did research to prepare for entering a community scarred by apartheid. But many surprises awaited them.

“Cape Town is very beautiful, but the racial divide is shocking," says Ramsay. “And I wasn't expecting a building so well-equipped for dance, or the sign that reads 'AIDS-friendly classroom,' or that where there is plenty of homophobia, there is no stigma whatsoever attached to boys doing ballet."

Scribner adds, “To see a class of 15 to 20 boys enthused to learn first position or sauté is so rare. By comparison, here in the U.S., a boy studying ballet has to wear so much armor."

While Ramsay describes herself as “a planner," she often found herself improvising as she taught a hundred energetic students in three levels at several DFA studios, located in the suburb of Athlone and in the poorer townships of Gugulethu, Nyanga, and Khayelitsha.

Those students are dancing in the face of harsh odds. As Elliott explains, “DFA gives them a place to go, out of harm's way, in situations where many have no parents. Most township kids don't count on living a long life. At DFA, there are people who care about them, demand excellence, and impart the importance of taking good care of their own bodies for the sake of ballet." Much of what developed nations provide for middle-class children goes missing in the South African townships, and what support does exist is precarious. The traditional Xhosa response to the greeting, “How are you?" is “Still alive."

“What I loved about Garen, Olivia, and the four others who came with us," Elliott says, “is that they had the same reaction I did when I first got there: asking 'What can I do?', spotting talent, making new choreography. They are so giving and brilliant with their art form."

That spirit continued even after the course officially ended. As soon as she returned home, Ramsay went back into planning mode, working hard to arrange for one of her DFA students, 12-year-old Thembisa Selana, to travel to the U.S. That effort paid off when Selana received a visa to study in California in December. Similarly, Scribner and fellow LEAP student Alejandro Piris Niño launched a website that raised funds for Byron Klassen, 19, to audition for Ohad Naharin in New York in December, while attending classes at Complexions, ABT's JKO School, and with Camille A. Brown.

But none of this would be happening if not for Boyd and Spira's initial vision. “We are preparing students to become dancers in all spheres, and introducing the poorest communities to the world of ballet and theater," says Boyd. “Education of any kind is the quickest way to slice through the deprivation of the past anywhere in the world."

Breaking Stereotypes
Getty Images

As a dietitian specializing in dance nutrition, the most common DM flooding my inbox is "How can I drop pounds (specifically from body fat) and gain muscle?"

The short answer? Not happening.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Chantelle Pianetta competing at a West Coast swing event. Courtesy Pianetta.

Just hearing the word "improvisation" is enough to make some ballet dancers shake in their pointe shoes. But for Chantelle Pianetta, it's a practice she relishes. Depending on the weekend, you might find her gracing Bay Area stages as a principal with Menlowe Ballet or sweeping in awards at West Coast swing competitions.

She specializes in Jack and Jill events, which involve improvised swing dancing with an unexpected partner in front of a panel of judges. (Check her out in action below.) While sustaining her ballet career, over the past four years Pianetta has quickly risen from novice to champion level on the WCS international competition circuit.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Jayme Thornton

Sean Dorsey was always going to be an activist. Growing up in a politically engaged, progressive family in Vancouver, British Columbia, "it was my heart's desire to create change in the world," he says. Far less certain was his future as a dancer.

Like many dancers, Dorsey fell in love with movement as a toddler. However, he didn't identify strongly with any particular gender growing up. Dorsey, who now identifies as trans, says, "I didn't see a single person like me anywhere in the modern dance world." The lack of trans role models and teachers, let alone all-gender studio facilities where he could feel safe and welcome, "meant that even in my wildest dreams, there was no room for that possibility."

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Getty Images

It's hour three of an intense rehearsal, you're feeling mentally foggy and exhausted, and your stomach hurts. Did you know the culprit could be something as simple as dehydration?

Proper hydration helps maintain physical and mental function while you're dancing, and keeps your energy levels high. But with so many products on the market promising to help you rehydrate more effectively, how do you know when it's time to reach for more than water?

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox