Knight Foundation to give $1 million to Charlotte groups

Over the past two decades, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has showered $16 million on Charlotte-area arts groups, and that generosity continues Friday: Dennis Scholl, Knight’s vice president for the arts, will announce more than a million bucks worth of grants at a reception at the Mint Museum Uptown.

Sometimes the foundation hands out massive bouquets. Charlotte Ballet received $1.1 million last year to guarantee extra pay for dancers and create an endowment to buy prominent contemporary pieces or acknowledged masterworks. Foundation for the Carolinas got $550,000 toward the reopening of Carolina Theatre.

But sometimes Knight gives one beautiful flower to a smaller group. Oneaka Dance Company gets $5,000 this cycle to revamp its Dances of the Soul program. That’s the least of the 13 grant packages in this cycle, but it could signify a leap forward for Oneaka Mack and her troupe.

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Opera Carolina and other heavyweights will collect the lion’s share of the largesse this evening. Yet even this modest gift typifies the giver’s mission.

“Knight Foundation believes the arts connect people to their community,” said Susan Patterson, Charlotte program director. “The $5,000 grant to Oneaka Dance achieves what the $1 million grant to Charlotte Ballet does – only on a grassroots scale: It brings the community together through dance.”

Mack, an IT specialist in her 40s, started her company almost by accident after moving to Charlotte a decade ago. She took her first classes in African dance in 1993 in Pittsburgh, then followed those up with studies in Baltimore. Ritual movement from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea and other nations led to “love at first sight. My body just identifies with that language so strongly,” she said.

She immersed herself in a community around Washington, D.C., and Baltimore that supported West African dance, which became her specialty. “But I didn’t find that village atmosphere when I came here; it was hard even to find a class,” she said. “I hungered for that dance family.”

So she created one, teaching a class at her house and then moving to the Harris YMCA and around the city to teach more often. Eventually, Oneaka Dance was holding classes in African dance and choreography, contemporary and traditional African music and “African meditative movement.”

Then, in June 2013, she met visual artist Catherine Courtlandt McElvane, whose “soul portraits” are intuitive readings of people’s personalities. Mack thought about creating dance pieces to depict those, then had an epiphany: Why not involve community members with little access to art? Oneaka Dance did a workshop series at Salvation Army Center of Hope last fall that opened eyes – for both residents of the center and Mack.

“We saw people in survival mode, trying to keep paying their bills and finding their children safe places to live,” she said. “You have to meet people where they are, not where you wish they were. So we removed our conceptions of teaching art and dance technique. We ended up inspiring them instead.” (You can see art created through the project at Loch Walker Gallery in Spirit Square, 345 N. College St., through Jan. 15.)

The Knight’s gift will allow Mack to find another community partner and expand the program in 2015, possibly with a multigenerational approach. She’s also planning an April event where classes she’s been teaching at schools can come together in a showcase.

“At Center of Hope, we helped people express themselves and break out of the pain they were feeling,” she said. “Families that had been keeping apart at the center began to help one another and learned each other’s names. They became social, instead of merely surviving. Art can do that.”