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Building Bridges for Ballet’s Future

September 3, 2013

Creating Model Outreach Programs for Ballet Organizations

By April Berry

What does it take to create a great community outreach dance program at a ballet organization?

Some key ingredients include: community need, planning and preparation, good timing, strong program leadership, local funding, a committed community partner, organizational buy-in, engaging curriculum, dedicated instructors, and interested program participants.

What makes a model outreach program? All of the above and much more!

Many ballet organizations set up outreach scholarship dance programs with a narrow view of what outreach programs can provide and produce.

As early as the 1970s savvy regional ballet organizations, among them San Francisco Ballet and Ballet Met Columbus created outreach dance programs to serve students traditionally defined as “underserved.” Most of these programs provided access to ballet training for ethnic minorities and boys, and many of the students qualified for free lunch.

By offering access and inclusion into the world of ballet through classes and company performances, at little or no cost to participants, outreach programs traditionally served to identify potential community talent for the ballet organization’s school and for Nutcracker performances, and created a new funding stream for the organization. These are still the expectations that many mid-sized regional ballet organizations have when creating outreach scholarship dance programs.

But the landscape has changed today. With a sagging economy, lackluster ticket sales, and funding shifts, many mid-sized ballet organizations are experiencing a disconnect occurring at a certain point among them, outreach program participants, and their local communities.

Some questions ballet organizations may want to ask as they embark on or assess an outreach program: have they created “authentic” relationships and built bridges between them and the communities they seek to serve? For the most part, there is a resounding “no” sent back from communities.
Have mid-sized ballet outreach programs truly grown in scope or are they just cycling participants in and out without creating a lasting effect in their communities?
Have mid-sized ballet outreach programs truly grown in scope or are they just cycling participants in and out without creating a lasting effect in their communities?

I have served as an education and outreach program director for the past 21 years at two mid-sized U.S. ballet companies – North Carolina Dance Theatre and Ballet Met Columbus – and have created model outreach dance programs for both organizations. REACH! is a unique outreach scholarship program for children at NC Dance Theatre and Youth Met!, is an outreach performance ensemble for advanced level teens at BalletMet’s Dance Academy. Providing various avenues for the community-at-large to get to know the organization requires building bridges; thereby connecting the organization to community.

Planning: A comprehensive outreach program builds bridges for the community and the organization, ensuring sustained involvement, ongoing engagement with participants and partners, program success and growth, and the potential for program modeling. A great outreach program should provide pathways for access, inclusion, and equity but also promote new, as well as future, audiences for ballet.

Preparation: The first bridge for North Carolina Dance Theatre was built in 2006. A volunteer outreach committee was created, comprised mostly of select Charlotte community members and potential community program partners, and those members were invited to serve alongside an NC Dance Theatre board member as chair, the company’s executive director, and the education and outreach program director. This committee brought in the community’s voice helping the company connect community need in Charlotte to potential resources and programming. Many of NC Dance Theatre’s outreach programs – from a community – building program between NC Dance Theatre and local church dance groups to after school dance classes; and programs for senior adults – began because of the support of this committee.

REACH!, an award-winning community outreach dance program created for North Carolina Dance Theatre, was the second  bridge built, providing access for a segment of the Charlotte community to the organization and the organization to the community-at-large. REACH! was designed to serve as a gateway to  high-quality arts experiences and to promote health and wellness among under-served children from all ethnicities. Securing Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department as a program partner was a key component in this effort. With limited resources, creativity was essential!

The REACH! Program launched in September 2009 after NC Dance Theatre received a generous three-year grant from the Women’s Impact Fund (WIF), a community funding agency composed of professional women in Charlotte dedicated to raising funds for arts, social services, health, education, and environmental projects.

Timing: WIF granted NC Dance Theatre foundational support for the REACH! Program because the organization felt that it addressed an “emerging, critical community need.” Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation leaders were happy to partner with NC Dance Theatre because they were interested in offering quality cultural arts programming in their recreation centers. From the beginning holding REACH! dance classes in neighborhoods where program participants lived or went to school, rather than bussing them to a distant studio campus, was essential, and it has been a real factor in the success of the program. Children ages 7 through 10 audition for the REACH! Program in four neighborhood centers around Charlotte, and are selected for dance scholarships based on their potential to be trained in ballet and other dance forms like  African and jazz, demonstrated financial need, and family commitment. Annually the program serves 100 students between the ages of 7 and 13, and classes are held in four different geographic locations – at four community centers around greater Charlotte. REACH! students have come from as many as 51 different schools to attend the free dance classes, with transportation provided by NC Dance Theatre to some students and space provided in-kind by the parks and recreation department.  

Creating neighborhood access and various avenues for inclusion and involvement for REACH! parents/guardians at NC Dance Theatre was important. Parents and guardians not only attended traditional outreach program orientations, parent/guardian meetings, and transported their children to Nutcracker auditions, rehearsals, and company performances, but they also attended interactive REACH! class showings and REACH! dance performances around Charlotte and were provided opportunities to interact with the professional company members in unique ways  such as attending dancer talks and lecture demonstrations for REACH! students. Parents and guardians have hosted REACH! student receptions at NC Dance Theatre’s building, and select program students and their parents and guardians receive special invitations to REACH! Program fundraisers and events held at NC Dance Theatre, providing funders the opportunity to witness, via student performances and moving testimonials, the impact the REACH! program has in the community.

These combined activities are impactful because they not only educate REACH! families on what their children are learning, but most importantly serve to develop their appreciation for the art form of ballet, the program, and the organization.

Therefore well before graduation from the REACH! Program, as students are entering middle school, they and their parents and guardians are so invested that they want more REACH! dance classes per week and recognize that the program serves as a bridge for additional study at North Carolina Dance Theatre’s School of Dance, if students work hard and show promise. Some REACH! parents and guardians have scraped money together to pay for additional tickets for other children and family members to attend Dance Theatre performances, and to cover summer dance classes for their children at the School of Dance when REACH! is not in session. One REACH! parent whose child graduated from the program donated more than a hundred new pink tights for other REACH! students and REACH! parents and guardians have even mailed small checks to me as they said “to help keep this wonderful program going.”  

Because the REACH! Program was built to be a “gateway program,” bridges were put in place early on for participants to engage in many different ways with dance, ballet, and NC Dance Theatre. These bridges have served as connectors so that REACH! students and their families feel “a part of” rather than “separate from” the art form and organization. Because a relationship was established first, participants are comfortable enough to participate in many different ways with the organization. The challenge will be to keep existing bridges open, as new ones are built for REACH! participants and the organization.

The REACH! Program has truly energized NC Dance Theatre and engaged the Charlotte community. Evidence of this is provided in a myriad of ways: new individual donors giving to NC Dance Theatre for REACH!; Charlotte-based foundations awarding grants for the very first time to NCDT in support of the REACH! program; a long-standing volunteer group at NCDT re-inventing its annual fundraiser to benefit REACH!; NCDT board members hosting REACH! Lunch and Learns; and parks and recreation departments partnering with NCDT to offer other dance programs to the community – most notably open company dress rehearsal programs for seniors and tuition-based creative movement classes run by NC Dance Theatre’s School of Dance. Model outreach programs promote this kind of community engagement and are crucial to an organization’s growth!

Model outreach programs build bridges for all. They connect students, families, organizations, funders, teachers, and community members-at-large through the power and beauty of dance! Ballet organizations should strive to forge these relationships when creating their own outreach programs – transforming the communities they serve and ensuring a bright future for ballet!

Photos: REACH! program in action, photo by Lauren Bailey
Center and bottom, by Mel Morganstein

April Berry, a former principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has danced with several regional U.S. ballet companies, as well as with ballet companies in Switzerland and Italy. Berry has more than 20 years of experience in dance education and community outreach, having served as education director at such companies as BalletMet Columbus in Columbus, Ohio, and most recently at North Carolina Dance Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has been an artist-in-residence, dance lecturer, and guest instructor at various universities around the country, including The Ohio State University, University of Indiana at Bloomington, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Berry teaches modern dance to pre-professional students, professional dancers, and adults, and she choreographs, conducts community workshops, and is a certified “master” instructor in the Dunham Technique, having received certification directly from Katherine Dunham. Berry is founder and lead consultant for Arts ‘n Community, a company dedicated to providing services to small and mid-sized dance organizations interested in engaging diverse communities.

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Tags: Arts Administration · Diversity · Education

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