Local Arts

Charlotte Ballet celebrates 10 years of putting dance within reach for local families

Charlotte Ballet’s scholarship program celebrates it’s 10th anniversary

The Reach program has helped provide dance education for over 1,000 kids.
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The Reach program has helped provide dance education for over 1,000 kids.

It costs a lot of money to raise a dancer.

One 2015 estimate put the cost at $100,000 over 15 years of dance education. Besides lessons, dance moms and dads have to ensure their aspiring Baryshnikovs and Fonteyns have a steady supply of ballet and pointe shoes. Pointe shoes can cost upwards of $75 a pair, and kids who are serious about ballet can run through a pair a month.

For a decade, Charlotte Ballet’s Reach scholarship program has helped make the expensive art form more affordable for young children who demonstrate financial need and show potential during an audition process. Bianca Bonner, Charlotte Ballet’s director of education and community engagement, estimates it saves each family about $2,700 a year.

In addition to free instruction twice a week, Reach scholars get shoes, leotards, and, thanks to the Leon Levine Foundation, tickets to almost every Charlotte Ballet performance. Alex Griffith, a Reach veteran at 16, saw his first ballet ever — “The Nutcracker” — courtesy of the program.

“It really motivated me,” he said.

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A young Alex Griffith performs a solo in an end-of-year Reach performance. Alex, now 16, graduated from Reach in 2014 but scholarships have enabled him to continue taking classes at Charlotte Ballet. Next season he’ll be a pre-professional trainee. Peter Zay Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

Reach scholars have also had the opportunity to learn from American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, ABT’s first African-American female principal dancer, and other top dance companies, such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The need-based dance scholarship program, which turned 10 this year, launched with a $78,000 Women’s Impact Fund grant. The first year, 167 boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 13, took part. The number keeps growing. In 10 years, more than 1,000 young dancers have participated in the three-year program. Some have gone on to earn scholarships to the Charlotte Ballet Academy, allowing them to continue their dance education through high school.

The Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department promotes the Reach program and provides space for the classes at recreation centers throughout the county, including the Sugaw Creek, Hickory Grove and Albemarle Road recreation centers. The program started at four rec centers; a fifth was added in 2014 and a sixth in 2017. Each center can accommodate about 25 dance students.

The instructors are professional teaching artists. Some work in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Union County schools systems. This is high-caliber, professional instruction. It just happens to also be free.

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Students perform in the 2019 end-of-year Reach performance, which took place May 5. Reach is Charlotte Ballet’s scholarship dance program and more than 1,000 young dancers have participated over the years. Peter Zay Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

‘It lights him up’

“Dance is great for children,” Charlotte Ballet’s Bianca Bonner said. “They gain confidence from performing in front of others. They have to learn a whole new language, and it’s very intricate. As a dance educator, I know: There’s no such thing as a dumb dancer.”

There’s no such thing as an undisciplined one, either. Alex Griffith has been among Bonner’s students in the Reach program since he started at Naomi Drenan Recreation Center when he was 9 — the same year he earned a black belt in tae kwon do. “Dance has kept me out of trouble,” said the Northwest School of the Arts student.

Alex, who began studying martial arts when he was 4, said his two favorite hobbies are very similar. “Both give you a sense of discipline and body control,” he said. “Both require focus and hard work.” And yet only dance gives him a feeling of freedom: “When I’m on stage, there’s nothing else in the world. I’m flying through the air and having a blast.”

Dance became an escape from — and a way to cope with — being bullied at school when he was younger. “Dancing has given me a way of expressing myself that nothing else has,” Alex said.

Between school and Charlotte Ballet, Alex is in ballet class six days a week. Dance lessons are the hard work that leads to the reward: performing in front of an audience.

Alex’s mom, Dana Bennett-Burch, said, “There’s part of Alex that comes to life on stage that we don’t see any other time. After nearly eight years, I still cry every time he’s on stage. It lights him up.”

She couldn’t have guessed when Alex was younger, that he’d be most at home on a stage. “As a little guy, he was super-shy,” she said. “He needed to be in a costume or mask of some sort to even leave the house.”

There was something else. Alex was diagnosed with ADHD. “He can’t sit still,” his mom said. “He just thinks better when he’s moving.”

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Students perform in the 2019 end-of-year Reach performance, which took place May 5. Reach is Charlotte Ballet’s scholarship dance program and more than 1,000 young dancers have participated over the years. Peter Zay Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

Making of a dancer

Bennett-Burch discovered the Reach program almost by accident. Alex and his mom loved watching “So You Think You Can Dance?” And she’d take him to her country line dancing events, where she said he always did his hip-hop moves. He mastered “the worm” and “the robot” when he was very young. He’d never shied away from dancing, but the family had never considered pursuing it, either.

That is until Bennett-Burch got an email from Charlotte Ballet with information about “Pointe the Way,” a fundraiser for the then-new Reach program. “I didn’t have the money for the fundraiser,” she said. “But I was interested in Reach. They were holding auditions and the one closest to us was going on that same day.” She asked if Alex was interested. He was game.

They went for the two-hour audition. Alex was one of “a couple of boys and hordes of girls,” recalled his mom. Alex loved it and was accepted into the program. He graduated in 2014 and has continued to take lessons — thanks to scholarships — at Charlotte Ballet ever since.

Next season, he’ll have a spot as a pre-professional trainee at Charlotte Ballet. He’ll continue getting the kind of training that could lead to a career as a dancer, which is what he’s working toward.

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Sabriyya Dean graduated from Charlotte Ballet’s Reach program. She’s now a pre-professional trainee with Charlotte Ballet. Jeff Cravotta Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

Pursuing a passion

Sabriyya Dean, 19 and a Reach graduate, is part of the pre-professional program now. The Central Piedmont Community College student had loved to dance since she was 4. “But pursuing this passion was hard for my single mom financially,” she said. Being part of Reach — and later, thanks to a full scholarship, Charlotte Ballet’s youth ballet division — taught her “hard work, discipline, responsibility and the fundamentals of ballet.”

Reach parents often tell Bianca Bonner their child’s grades improve as a result of the discipline they learn in dance class. As does their confidence. The real value of the program ends up being much more than the $2,700-a-year estimate Bonner has pegged to it.

“I tell Alex often: ‘Be so grateful for this opportunity,” Bennett-Burch said. It’s one I couldn’t afford to give you. This is coming to us as a gift. Other people are paying for you to come learn. We have to earn that.’”

Charlotte Ballet has become a second family to Alex, his mom said. “Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux (former co-artistic director) has taken an interest in Alex. So have the ladies in the costume shop. Everyone there is so good to him.”

Alex still does tae kwon do, but “dance is always his first choice,” his mom said. Dance has made a world of difference for Alex. It’s been life-changing for his mom, too.

“Dance has been a gift to both of us,” she said, before adding, “What a cool kid I have. He’s a black belt in ballet shoes.”

Learn more

Charlotte Ballet’s Reach program is funded through contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations. Learn more at charlotteballet.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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