I’ve been dancing for almost 22 years, and it wasn’t until last year that I’d ever seen a ballet production with a majority black cast. I’ve seen us cast in lead roles, making historic strides like Misty Copeland, but never had I seen a stage full of black and brown skin tones in tutus and appropriately colored tights. Kevin Thomas, Artistic Director of Collage Dance Collective, shares a similar sentiment, and has dedicated his life to providing an entry point and a professional stage for ballet dancers of color.
“I was 29 when I was accepted into the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and up until that point I’d only gotten hints of feeling like I belonged,” Thomas said. “You know, I grew up seeing Lauren Anderson in Dance Magazine and I remember seeing Ronald Perry who was a principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and he was chocolate. When I saw him on stage, I was like “Oh my god. This is absolutely beautiful.” So when I was finally in a space where I truly felt that sense of belonging, I was like everybody who looks like me, every kid who looks like me, needs to feel this way. This experience should be plastered on posters everywhere.”
And it has been. On stage, on posters, on social media and more, you can see the spectrum—and if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find the diversity represented within that. Memphis is their home-base, but dancers come from all over, representing French Guiana, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic, to name a few. Collage Dance Collective, now in it’s 10th year of operation, has not only centered itself as a hub for dancers of color to seek training, but has opened the floor to those outside of their community, demystifying the ideas of what dance can be.
“When we started the school in 2009, I was telling someone that my idea was to get boys into ballet. And someone told me, Kevin you’re crazy. You’ll never get boys here from Memphis to do ballet, but it did happen. I had over 23 or 24 third grade boys running to ballet during their academic day. I understand the culture, that if you don’t know ballet, this is what you think it is—that it’s all fairy dust and for girls. But if the boys see that it’s athletic, there’s competition, that it makes you strong, it changes the myth”
That education is only going to get more expansive with the opening of their new space, a 22,000 square-foot studio set to open in Binghampton in Fall of 2020. Between their company, studio dancers, and those participating in outreach programs at local schools, their training 400+ dancers each week, and those numbers will continue to grow—only furthering the notion that their work is both needed and wanted.
“I see all these little chocolate kids running around in tights, boys and girls, and they are smiling, and they are sweating, and they are working hard. I say to myself, “Yes! Let’s keep up the work,” because there’s a lot more that’s to come.”
Currently their outreach programs are spread across three local schools: Brewster Elementary, St. George’s, Believe Dance Academy.
“We see a lot of kids and we see a lot of talent; and what’s hard for me is when I see the talent and the talent doesn’t go where it could have gone due to outside influences. This bigger space is only going to help us ramp up our programming. We can create more opportunities that cater to the varying levels. Be it a 13 to 14-year-old who is coming to us from Believe Memphis Academy or a trained professional who auditioned from the International Association of Blacks in Dance, the goal is really to become this high-quality training facility, because quality is important. Quality for us is important.”
And the caliber of their work speaks for itself and comes with receipts.
“It has taken 10 years of constant showing what is possible, but people are finally starting to see. I have kids who are Ailey Fordham on scholarship. I have kids who went to Alonzo King LINES Ballet on scholarship. Three of our kids just got into the School of American Ballet summer school. One of our boys is 19 and he’s dancing is West Side Story on Broadway. We are showing people how far you can go. We are showing people that ballet is black.”
They are launching into their 10th anniversary season with RISE, a celebratory performance that honors the vital contributions made by blacks within black history, on February 22nd and 23rd. 100+ kids from the conservatory will join members of their professional company on stage to deliver a lovely message of growth, hope, and beauty. The show will not only feature original music from local musician Jonathan Kirkscey and original choreography from Thomas himself, but a portion of the performance will be set to Martin Luther King’s mountain top speech—the last speech he gave before his assassination.
- When: Saturday, February 22nd & Sunday, February 23rd
- Saturday @ 8PM
- Sunday @ 2:30PM
- Where: Germantown Performing Arts Center
Purchase tickets here.