From introducing the basics of ballet to preparing students for an elite career on the world's most prestigious stages, Houston Ballet Academy offers young dancers the opportunity to learn from renowned performers, choreographers and artistic directors. And luckily for Houstonians, this institution firmly believes that everyone should have access to their high quality programs.
Michael Amoky was a first grader at Morales Elementary when he took his first ballet lesson. He came to Houston Ballet through one of their community outreach programs: Chance to Dance. After Michael completed the free, eight-week program through his school, Houston Ballet offered him a scholarship to join their Academy and continue his lessons. Though he’d only been dancing for a few weeks at that point, he knew he wanted more. As his time spent practicing increased, so did his love of the art form. Sometime during his first year of lessons in the Academy, he was absolutely hooked.
“There was this switch that flipped and he took it to this new level,” recalls Jennifer Sommers, director of education and community engagement at Houston Ballet and one of Michael’s instructors his first year at the Academy. “All of a sudden he went from being a good student to knowing this is what he wanted to do.”
Michael remembers the moment as well: “We were on stage practicing for the spring performance, and I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
Every year, Houston Ballet provides nine sessions of Chance to Dance. The aim of the initiative is all in the name: that every child should be able to experience the best Houston Ballet has to offer. Schools all across Houston are selected for participation, but priority is given to those where at least 70 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged by the Texas Education Agency. Chance to Dance is completely free of charge, and Houston Ballet provides transportation from the schools to the Houston Ballet Center for Dance Downtown.
The initiative is offered specifically to 6 and 7 year olds. In addition to providing ballet lessons, Academy staff are looking for students with a flair for dance who might join their school. During the last weeks of each Chance to Dance series, staff from Houston Ballet Academy evaluate students and select those with the most potential to receive a year-long scholarship to their school. “It’s really a scholarship in perpetuity,” clarifies Sommers. “As long as you’re working hard and doing your best you get to be here.” Currently there are 52 students in the Academy who entered through Chance to Dance. Last year alone the Ballet offered 35 scholarships.
LEADING THE PACK
Since joining the Academy seven years ago Michael has been working hard and improving quickly. He trains at Houston Ballet Center for Dance five days a week in addition to his full-time schedule as a middle school student. Last summer Michael became the first Academy student who entered from the Chance to Dance program to participate in Houston Ballet’s competitive summer intensive.
The intensive offers select students from around the world an opportunity to train at one of the top summer dance programs. More than 1,000 students audition for the chance to join the rigorous program that brings them that much closer to their dreams of becoming professional dancers. Houston Ballet in particular has a reputation as one of the most demanding summer programs in the country.
During the intensive, Michael was able to hone his technique and bring his practice to a higher level. But his greatest takeaway was mental, rather than physical. “I really learned how to focus. You couldn’t slack off in class—not that I do that! But the teachers were much harder,” he explains.
Another skill he was able to try out for the first time was partnering – lifting and turning his female classmates. The experience wasn’t as daunting as the 12 year old might have expected: “I enjoyed it. It wasn’t hard because the girls are there to work, just like I am. They’re not there to pick on you.”
Chance to Dance is one of many educational programs Houston Ballet offers across the city. Last year the company saw more than 60,000 students and worked at more than 320 schools. “We want everyone in Houston to be able to experience the best Houston Ballet has to offer, so we’re always looking to create points of entry,” says Jennifer Sommers. In her view, her department is the bridge that connects the community to Houston Ballet. “Both our Executive Director Jim Nelson and Artistic Director Stanton Welch are committed to keeping this programming free and for kids who may not otherwise have access to these types of programs,” says Sommers. Even if the kids are in schools that have arts programs, they look for students that might not have the resources or opportunities to attend after-school dance classes.
What the teaching artists do in education and community engagement at Houston Ballet goes beyond mere technique or dance instruction. In response to a society where art education is deemed more an elective than an essential education component, Sommers points to academic research that proves involvement in the arts increases student performance and engagement, as well as social and emotional development. “I’ve seen it work firsthand. When you look at the CASEL 5, the five categories of social emotional competency, dance covers every single one,” she says. The five categories are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Development in these areas is believed to increase a student’s ability to excel in daily tasks and academic challenges. “Cognitive development and motor development are linked – that’s just fact,” Sommers states.
Michael Amoky can testify to the benefits of dance beyond the ballet studio. “Ballet helps with my ADHD. When I’m in class I fidget when they explain the combinations and it’s hard to stay focused. Ballet, and movement, definitely helps,” he says.
For Jen Sommers it’s full circle. She just received a testimonial letter from a parent in a recent Chance the Dance program proclaiming how much their child loved the lessons. The excitement at the prospect of getting to dance made the student that much more excited to go to school that day. As many schools cut back on physicality, and students are encouraged to sit still and keep quiet, is it any wonder that permission to move engages and excites them?
By teaching dance Houston Ballet is helping students explore their creativity, develop their social skills, and encouraging kids to just have fun. “There’s such a connection and love in those classes. That’s why we do this,” explains Sommers. But more than that, she says, movement is life: “Dance is life. Period. That’s our philosophy.”