Long before Misty Copeland grabbed international headlines as the first African American woman named principal dancer at American Ballet Theater in New York, Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet was scouting for young people like Copeland: potential dancers who might not find ballet on their own.
In 1994, PNB started a program called DanceChance. Francia Russell, PNB’s founding co-artistic director, and the force behind the program, says the idea was to go into Seattle elementary schools to identify young kids with the physical aptitude for ballet, then provide these kids with free classes, dance wear and transportation to the Phelps Center on the Seattle Center campus.
Russell laughs at the audacity of the vision.
“We had no money!”
But PNB decided to forge ahead with the program, then try to raise funds based on what the company created.
The trick was to convince local schools to sign off on the idea.
Russell remembers making pitch after pitch, with no luck. Finally, the principal at Seattle’s Martin Luther King Elementary School said yes to the idea, and DanceChance was a go.
More than two decades later, DanceChance operates pretty much as it did the first year, albeit with a lot more funding in place.
Program manager Jennifer McLain and her teachers went to 22 elementary schools this fall; they screened every third grader at each school. McLain says they’re testing the kids’ flexibility and their bodies’ ability to move into the ballet positions. Not everyone is born with these physical qualities.
Ballet also requires coordination, a sense of rhythm, and above all, focus.
Current PNB corps de ballet member Angeli Mamon remembers her DanceChance audition at Seattle’s Beacon Hill Elementary School.
“We thought we were going to the gym,” she explains. “We sat on these little jelly pad things and did stretches. They didn’t tell us what we were doing.”
Mamon says if she’d known she was auditioning for a ballet program she would have tried to avoid it.
“I was really a tomboy,” she laughs.
Ten years later, Mamon was the first female DanceChance student to be invited to dance with PNB.
“I absolutely love this program,” she says. “I would not be where I am without it.”
But Mamon concedes the transition from her home environment to the ballet world was jarring. Her mother, who’s from Mexico, didn’t know much about ballet. Neither did Mamon. That’s true for most of the kids who walk into PNB for the very first time.
Francia Russell remembers watching children “kind of creep up the stairs into this big building. They think ‘Ballet, what’s that?’”
“The cultural difference is huge,” acknowledges Najja Morris. Her 17-year-old daughter, Nazirah Taylor, entered DanceChance nine years ago. She’s now in the top ranks of the PNB school.
Morris was thrilled when her daughter was selected for DanceChance, but she had a lot of concerns.
“You hear horror stories about children in ballet, mean girls, cliques,” Morris says. “When she started, she had locks in her hair. Everyone was great pulling them into a bun, but she didn’t look like everyone else.”
And as Nazirah has moved up the ranks, Morris says there were “fewer brown people” her daughter could emulate.
Former PNB soloist Kiyon Gaines knows exactly how that feels. He remembers his own days as an aspiring ballet dancer in Baltimore:
“There weren’t other people, role models, for me to look up to. There was no one else like me.”
Gaines, who stopped dancing with PNB last spring, is now a DanceChance faculty member. Program manager Jennifer McLain is thrilled.
“The boys’ faces, seeing Kiyon at the screenings,” she says. “They were thinking, 'This guy is awesome. He’s just like me!'”
That identification is evident in Gaines’ DanceChance classes, where the boys vie to please their teacher.
"Being able to influence the next generation of dancers is so important to me," Gaines says. "I felt like I didn’t have a lot of champions in my corner when I was growing up.”
Although the DanceChance participants are screened for talent and aptitude, Jennifer McLain says not every child will become a professional dancer.
That’s not really her main goal.
“Seeing them come and realize they’re special. They can be whatever they want."