Collage dance Collective’s theme for its upcoming 7th season in Memphis is, “ONE.” Interesting, because when they started their ballet school in 2007, it was with ONE student. Now enrollment has blossomed to 185 and includes one of the largest boys’ ballet programs in the city. As for their professional company of dancers, they operated on a pick-up status, coming from cities all over the country for 2-3 weeks at a time, performing, then going their separate ways. Recently, CdC has created the means to localize their company, bringing an array of black and brown classically trained dancers to live and collaborate in ONE city: Memphis. The dancers are now woven into the community and those connections will undoubtedly shape their art in new and exciting ways that you’ll want to see. CdC’s season kicks off on August 20th with the 7th Annual Summer Social Gala featuring Memphis’ own Kevin Whalum, Cameron Bethany and dancers from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the all-new Shelby Farms Park Fedex Event Center.
Executive Director Marcellus Harper explained that because of CdC’s mission to celebrate and promote professional dancers of color, recruiting from all over became a necessity.
“We’re a diverse company. We’re inclusive, but we’re proactive in showcasing dancers of color. One, we look for high-caliber professional black and brown dancers who are classically trained, and there are not an abundance — there are some, but not a whole lot. And then, we’re looking for those who are willing to relocate to Memphis. Many young professional dancers want to be in cities with robust dance scenes like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami. Although we know Memphis can stand shoulder to shoulder with these cities, our city may not from the onset be as attractive. However, Collage’s reputation and culture is strong. The choreographers that we bring in, the repertory that we do is attractive, and then we promote Memphis as a place that celebrates the arts, that has a diverse population, and that young creatives can have a large impact.”
Meet two of the dancers who were inspired to make the leap:
Daphne Lee, 25
Relocated from Rahway, New Jersey
On how she joined CdC:
I had just finished the end of my tour for Ailey II, and I was freelancing with different companies. Collage called me in and said ‘Hey, we’d love to work with you for two weeks. You’d come in and learn some rep, and you’d perform.’ And that’s exactly what I did in January of 2014. Then they told me they were hiring a full-time company and I said ‘Great!’ But you don’t know how that’s really going to work out, so I continued to freelance. Collage called me in August and said we’d love to have you full-time. They gave me the specs and I said, ‘I’m young, free, single. I can move.’
On making the adjustment:
I’m an East Coast girl. I’m from Jersey. New York City is in my backyard. Everything is fast-paced. I knew it was going to be a journey but I was looking forward to it. I’m first-generation American. I have no family in this country, so when it comes to the South, I don’t know what that means. It was a whole new culture shock in terms of the people, hearing the accent, trying to figure that out. Dealing with the heat… the little things you’re not familiar with. Not having a beach is one of my biggest things because I’m used to just getting up and going to the shore. But it’s been amazing here. I have a car, I’m right in Midtown, I’m able to visit all the local businesses. My hair salon is A Natural Affair. I regularly go to Muddy’s. Maybe I should cut back on that. I try to visit the businesses here and check out all that Memphis has to offer so that way, it can enhance my dancing here at Collage.
On her favorite things, so far:
Some of my favorite things include Undercurrent, the National Civil Rights Museum, visiting restaurants like Onix and Half Shell. I didn’t get to go to Memphis Fashion Week [but would have loved to]. The HiTone, the Jungle Boogie event which is at the Afro House. There’s so much. I’ve met so many great people through my work with Collage! From Ziggy Mack — Ziggy is one of the well-known photographers here, and Faizah who is a great makeup artist…I’ve met so many people through them and so many other events. The Lyfe is Dope event, the Cooper-Young Festival…there’s so much I’ve experienced thus far and there’s so much more to experience.
Daniel Cooke, 24
Relocated from Las Vegas, Nevada
On how he joined CdC:
I was working in a big-box store factory and I hated that job. I did it faithfully because that’s what life threw me, those were the cards. Dancing took a backseat and I had to provide for myself and my house. For three months straight I was praying every single night, ‘God, please give me an opportunity.’ I didn’t even say ‘dance,’ just an opportunity to do something that I love. I got a raise at the job I was working and they started to teach me the mechanics of it..and then Kevin (Artistic Director of CdC) called me. It was literally the same day. Kevin called and said, “Hey, we’d like to have you come guest with us for two weeks.” For me, it was as easy as, ‘Thanks for the opportunity here but I’m gonna go dance!’ And it was only for two weeks. I came here with my mind focused and my heart focused on working as hard as I can and hopefully, it would turn into something more, and fortunately enough for me, it did. I worked from the end of November last year, through the end of the season. When I saw the poster for Genesis, the spring show, when I saw my face and my body on that poster I thought, ‘This is it. This is the opportunity I was praying for.’
On what he likes about Memphis:
I am generally impressed by the people who live here. They are very kind and open-hearted. I want to say simple, and sometimes I feel like people will take offense to simple, but I feel that the closer to the essence you are, the more you tend to be simple and honest. It’s the honesty of the people in Memphis. I joined a church, Friendship Church of Nazarene, and I love my church family. They’ve been supportive of me hardcore since I started going there. I’m starting school at the end of this month at Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies and that was, in part, because of that community of people.
On what attracted him to CdC:
Collage is the kind of company where you DANCE. There’s a very diverse repertoire that you’re responsible for learning. But during the year, it’s manageable to take two nights a week to go to school and another two nights to go teach, and then another two nights for your church, and then still have a free day. You can do those things as a dancer in this company.
Aside from the lifestyle, the students here. They surprisingly have a group of young men who want to dance and there are a lot of stigmas about being a dancer for boys—that they might be soft. And so as a man who’s 6’3”, 200 pounds, straight — I love what I do because boys come up to me and say “Man, I want to be just like you. The way you jump, turn, how strong you are. What do you eat?” I love how this company does a lot of outreach in the community. It was their mission from the start. I hope to stay here for a while and be part of the growth.
See the season schedule and learn more about how Collage dance Collective is growing the next generation of classically trained dancers of color at collagedance.org.
Cover photo: Company members of Collage dance Collective by Andrew J. Breig.