It’s been over 20 years, but Willie Anderson remembers it like it was yesterday. He was a struggling junior at Atlanta’s D.M. Therrell High dangerously close to dropping out. His dance teacher, the late Muriel Odom, opted to stage an unconventional intervention in the form of an audition – only she hadn’t bothered to tell him beforehand.
“I was warming up, when a couple walked into the studio,” recalls Anderson, 42. “I was a little nervous at first, but then I started dancing and the nerves were gone. After my partner and I finished, we talked and talked and they said that they would like for me to come and study with them; they gave me a full scholarship.”
That “couple” turned out to be husband and wife team Waverly T. Lucas II and Nena Gilreath, co-founders of Ballethnic Dance Company, metro Atlanta’s first and only African American founded classically trained professional ballet company.
That surprise performance literally changed Anderson’s life forever. He agreed take on Lucas’ challenge to finish high school and became the first student in his Danseur Development Project, a training program for a dance training program for at-risk young men of color.
Before long, Anderson was snagging standing ovations in the company’s signature modern dance and ballet productions. After six years under the couple’s tutelage, Anderson eventually branched out on his own and moved to Cleveland to join what would eventually become the Cleveland San Jose Ballet Company. The rest, as they say, is history. Anderson insists that he owes his lifelong career in dance to his start with Ballethnic.
“Ballethnic provides Atlanta with something that some people have the wrong idea about – that people of color cannot do ballet; that’s just not true,” he says. “Ballethnic gives the little ones the chance to study ballet and prepare for what is out there; it helps them to become more than they thought they could be.”
Students like Anderson keep Lucas and Gilreath going. The former Dance Theatre of Harlem and Atlanta Ballet dancers, will this year celebrate the studio’s 25th anniversary – a remarkable milestone to reach at a time when the arts are woefully underfunded and diversity in dance is often a buzzword. The couple has stayed the course and stuck to their convictions that black dancers matter.
"Every ballet performance I had witnessed as a little girl didn’t have familiar faces and bodies like mine."
“I so admire them,” says Lydia Abarca Mitchell, an African American Juilliard-trained former prima ballerina who consults Gilreath and Lucas on their shows they premiere. “So many companies – even the Dance Theatre of Harlem – have had struggles and hiatuses, but but Nena and Waverly have stayed the course, carrying on the tradition. They’re so committed and it shows in all that they’ve accomplished.”
Comprised of two components, the classically trained, culturally diverse professional Ballethnic Dance Company Inc. and the school for children and adults, Ballethnic Academy of Dance, Gilreath and Lucas say they founded Ballethnic in 1990 to “inform, educate and entertain through dance.”
Nearly three decades into the passionate throes of their longstanding mission, Lucas and Gilreath press on with their signature productions like The Leopard Tale, an African-themed modern, ballet and African dance production that Lucas penned long before Disney turned The Lion King into a household name.
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Ballethnic is best known, however, for its signature holiday classic Urban Nutcracker which runs through this weekend. Lucas’s soulful adaptation of Tchaikovsky's ballet is set on Atlanta's historic Sweet Auburn Avenue in the 1940's, featuring whimsical characters such as Reggae Ragdolls, the sultry Arabian dance, the spins and leaps of the Black Russians, Mother Spice and her tumbling Spice Drops, the bubbly Coca-Cola Pas de Six and the elegant Brown Sugar and her Chocolatier.
Former student Chayla Harris Gaines remembers well her life-changing Urban Nutcracker performances. “It was so magical for me personally because I was finally getting an opportunity to be a part of a professional performance -- a performance that included black ballerinas. For me that was a big deal,” says Gaines, who became Gilreath’s first student teacher while still in high school. “Every ballet performance I had witnessed as a little girl didn’t have familiar faces and bodies like mine; I couldn’t relate to this type of experience because it was so far fetched, so out of reach, so unlikely.”
Harris Gaines says Ballethnic productions helped her and many other young dancers of color build up their confidence and performance chops – opportunities that are hard to come by in mainstream dance companies and sometimes even as part of other more diverse dance companies.
This anniversary year has been an eventful one for both the company and its co-founders. After more than a decade at a venue on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus, this month Ballethnic is moving to a new space, the African American-owned Riverside EpiCenter in Austell, just outside of Atlanta.
Although funding has been – and continues to be – Ballethnic’s main challenge, the company’s biggest hurdle this year has been Lucas’s health. The man so muscular and strong that his students call him “He-Man” has been sidelined since April with a serious injury; he ruptured his Achilles tendon during a rehearsal at Ballethnic’s modest dance studio in East Point, Ga.
“I wasn’t jumping or anything, it was the most casual movement in the dance,” recalls Lucas. “I was just walking, I took two steps and all of a sudden you heard a loud pop and I just collapsed. I knew [my Achilles tendon] was just completely gone.”
Multiple doctors appointments, surgeries, skin grafts and post-surgery infections later, Waverly is still holding on to hopes of a full recovery – or at least getting closer to what life was like before the injury. Gilreath has remained at his side through the emotional experience (although she candidly admits that she’s “over” the household chores that she’s inherited, like taking out the trash and walking the dog).
“Ballethnic provides Atlanta with something that some people have the wrong idea about – that people of color cannot do ballet; that’s just not true.”
The sweet part of their bittersweet anniversary year hands down though has been watching with pride as their students and company members, many of whom have literally grown up in the company over the years, take on more leadership roles.
“Certain [students] have stepped up to help so that we could focus on other things and it’s been amazing,” says Gilreath. “For the first time in 25 years, I didn’t have to teach the Summer Dance Diversity Camp. They took it over and the quality didn’t change; it’s like we never left. I couldn’t help but think, ‘this is our vision come true.’ It’s been a big turning point for us.”
The injury has also pushed Lucas for the first time to choreograph in a completely different way – more abstractly than literal; more verbally than physical.
“I’ve have had to be much more descriptive and realize the power of the terminology and power of using analogies,” he says. “It makes you realize how much knowledge that you have that you don’t use, until you’re forced to use it. I used to be able to show them, now I have to explain it and use analogies more. I’m realizing that it brings much more clarity to the teaching.”
Lucas and Gilreath say they’re hoping to bring their shows to other cities in the near future, but they’re most excited about passing the torch to the younger generation who’s literally grown up with Ballethnic. Gaines still teaches at the school every Saturday morning (“she’s excellent,” adds Lucas).
“Through them I learned the guiding principles of teaching; the importance of understanding ballet terminology and most importantly, the self-efficacy of becoming a black ballerina,” says Gaines, who now works as a wellness and communications specialist.
Former student Anderson, too, is making his former teachers proud the world over. Since 2011 he has been teaching ballet in China, first at Guangxi University and now, as a “ballet master” at Chongqing Ballet Company.
He says he takes the lessons learned at Ballethnic into the dance studio every day. “I can honestly say that Ballethnic has given a direction to my life, direction to be a better person,” he says. “Studying dance at Ballethnic instilled a sense of pride within myself, a feel for family values and responsibility and a love for creativity. If it had not been for Ballethnic, I don't know where I would be.”
Urban Nutcracker will be presented this weekend (November 19- 22, 2015) at the Riverside EpiCenter, 135 Riverside Pkwy, Austell, GA 30168. For more information, visit www.ballethnic.org