Hear that? It’s the sound of an old heavy door slowly creaking open, one that’s been locked far too long. Come closer and peek in if you will, and catch a glimpse of something changing–something old, treasured and respected, now morphing new and exciting. Since the first classical ballet school was established in the seventeenth century court of Louis XIV, that beautiful door of opportunity has opened readily to talented dancers, if you happened to be white and privileged enough to afford professional instruction. But sadly, it has often been slammed shut and locked in the faces of everyone else. Dancers of color didn’t fit the traditional white stereotype of ballet, and if they did manage to break in, often they were asked hide behind white face powder to fit in. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since those days, but there is still more to do. Here in downtown Augusta, groups are joining forces and dreaming big to make ballet more accessible to those who remain behind the shut door.
The mission of Augusta Ballet is to foster a culture of ballet appreciation and support through ballet performances, education, and creative collaborations to a broad and diverse audience. With a generous grant from the Augusta Exchange Club, Augusta Ballet provided fifteen Hope for Augusta children a week of free dance instruction in June under the direction of Victoria Harvey, a professional dancer with The Eugene Ballet Company of Oregon. Hope for Augusta, an inner city outreach arm of First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, works to restore people and rebuild places of our city, breaking down existing racial and economic barriers through tutoring programs, mentoring partnerships, job training and arts education. This partnership with Hope for Augusta and The Augusta Exchange Club was the perfect opportunity for Augusta Ballet to live out its’ mission.
At the end of the week, this company of children performed a movement from the famous ballet Giselle on the stage of Heritage Academy for close to 100 children and parents. They were not in tutus or pointe shoes, but they didn’t care. They were dancing classical ballet with all the vibrant and natural enthusiasm born to children. They were not all tall and thin. They were not all coordinated and graceful. They were not all the same color. But they were all beautiful. I was there, and they made me feel, for a moment in time, a part of our one inherent humanity. They made me proud to be their neighbor and gave me hope for a better city. Literally, they gave me Hope for Augusta. That is the power of art, the power of dance.
Experience it for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7EwbG8VF-s&feature=youtu.be
Following the performance, four of these budding dancers were award one-year ballet scholarships to a local dance studio of their choice, thanks to a grant from The Augusta Exchange Club. But there is no easily accessible classical ballet studio in downtown Augusta where they live. Cue First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, who recognized the gap, and on July 5 broke ground on a children’s ministry building and community performing arts center that will be the permanent home to Hope Ballet Theater. Located within walking distance of their homes, Hope Ballet Theater will provide serious classical ballet training, and through a scholarship process based on talent, serious motivation and need, children who have had limited access will see an open door.
This month, Misty Copeland became the first African-American principal dancer for American Ballet Theater, our country’s premier classical ballet company. Misty received her first ballet lesson for free at the age of 13 from a Boys and Girls Club and worked diligently to become the inspiration she is today to dancers everywhere who don’t look exactly like those of the court of Louis XIV. While we respect the history of classical ballet, we also rejoice that ballerinas of all shapes, sizes, and colors grace the stages of major companies today.
Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director of Dance Theater of Harlem, when asked if ballet has a color, beautifully answered, “Yes, ballet does have a color. It is the rich color of humanity — in all of its shades.” Within a year, Augusta will hear the sound of that old heavy door of opportunity swing wide open on Telfair Street, showing not only the color of ballet in our city, but teaching us all the beautiful dance of humanity as well.
“Let them praise his name with dancing…” Psalm 149:3