"I want to leave you with something you can use," Robert Battle said to a small group of students lined up along the wall. "Now let's dance!"
Battle, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater's artistic director, was in the middle of delivering a master class workshop for student dancers at Miami's Northwestern Senior High School, which he attended for two years while growing up in south Florida.
"To come back home is so important," Battle told NBCBLK. "Some of the same issues still exist, in terms of poverty, in terms of feeling a sense of being underserved in certain communities. So, I think it's important for people like myself to make sure we give back."
Battle's visit to Northwestern was one of several stops in Miami, all planned as part of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts' tenth anniversary celebration. To mark the milestone, Arsht world-premiered Ailey's performance of Awakening - Battle's first new work since becoming artistic director in 2011. Between rehearsals and performances, Battle ventured out into the city to connect with aspiring dancers and other members of the community.
"The fact that Robert Battle is from the same place my students come from — Liberty City, this school — it gives them hope in a place where sometimes the light is kind of dim," Northwestern dance teacher Traci Young-Byron explained. "It makes them want to strive for success sand keep and pushing, yearning for greatness."
For hours, Battle weaved in and out of the young troupes' formations, chanting numerical counts and offering praise if a student was particularly sharp. On beat, he shared tips for movement as well as personal anecdotes from his own childhood.
"It's important to let them know that their imagination is the best way to really choreograph their own lives," Battle said. "If you can see yourself soar, you will soar. That's something that worked for me, growing up here."
"From this master class, my biggest takeaway is the knowledge," said student dancer Jakira Davis, "Everything he spoke about, it goes for on the floor and off the floor."
"It's actually a huge thing to know that someone from Miami, Florida, the same area I'm in, can actually make it in life and be something I can possibly be," said eleventh-grade dance student Deante Jenkins. "That's a huge inspiration."
For Battle, it's not so much about following in footsteps, as much as it is "standing on shoulders" — a metaphor he uses when describing the responsibility of being only the second person to command the dance company since Mr. Ailey himself.
"I thank people like Alvin Ailey who made it possible for people like me to stand in my own truth and tell my story," Battle said. "What is black history month to me, as we celebrate it? The truest liberation is the fact that we can stand up and tell our story, because we all have stories to tell."