South Charlotte

Dance program opens new world

The Naomi Drenan Recreation Center off Wendover Road buzzed with excitement on the evening of Nov. 8.

Twenty-three dance students and their families filled the gymnasium for the first parent observation night of the year. Students in the N.C. Dance Theatre's REACH program were ready to show off their moves.

The REACH program began three years ago with a grant from the Women's Impact Fund, allowing N.C. Dance Theatre to provide free weekly classes to qualifying children throughout Charlotte. The classes are taught by NCDT instructors.

Each year, open auditions are held for children ages 7-10. Selection is based on natural ability and the ability to be taught, financial need and family commitment.

According to April Berry, director of education outreach for NCDT, the program was established when the company saw a need for high-quality dance training for those who may not be able to afford classes. By partnering with Charlotte Park and Recreation, the program offers classes in the Albemarle Road, Bette Rae Thomas and Ivory Baker recreation centers.

The 29-week program roughly follows the CMS school year; each student takes two one-hour classes a week. The students at the Naomi Drenan center take ballet and West African dance. All receive free dance attire and tickets to select NCDT performances, and about a third receive transportation from their schools to the class.

Dana Bennett's son, Alexander Griffith, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at Chantilly Montessori, is in the program.

"We spent the summer watching 'So You Think You Can Dance' as a family, and Alex enjoyed watching it so much. He's always been a little hip-hop guy, but the more he watched, the more he liked contemporary," Bennett said.

"We found out about the audition for REACH the day of, and he really wanted to do it. He was leaping all over the house. If it weren't for the scholarship, we could never afford to offer this to him."

According to Alexander, he likes that dancers get to go barefoot in West African dance, similar to martial arts.

"But I also like ballet, because it helps you with flexibility, so I don't know which is my favorite," he said.

Kimani Virella, an 11-year-old student at Randolph Middle, is in her third year with the program. She said dance from Latin America is her favorite.

"We learned how to do the tango and how to salsa. It was really fun, and I'm so thankful we got the opportunity to be in this program," she said.

After they age out of the program, students can audition for a scholarship to attend classes at NCDT.

Victoria Dunlap, 11, attends Chesterbrook Academy in Ballantyne. This is her second year in the REACH program, and her mother, Ann Marie Norvell, said Victoria's goal is to get a scholarship to continue training at NCDT.

"She's starting to involve dance in the rest of her life," Norvell said. "Her posture and self-esteem has improved, and this year she's performing in the 'Nutcracker' at the Belk Theatre."

In fact, 18 of the REACH students will be performing in this year's "Nutcracker" performance.

Victoria will be a mouse. Norvell said Victoria now realizes how much work it takes to be a dancer.

"I can't be more grateful to them for giving my daughter the opportunity to do this," Norvell said.

This year, the REACH students have performed at the Charlotte POST Gala at the Hilton Hotel and on the main stage during the Wells Fargo Cultural Day.

"I can tell you personally, I came through a program like this as a scholarship dance student, so I was very motivated to start a program like this at Dance Theatre," said Berry. "If I hadn't gotten trained in a program like this, I would not be where I am today, as director of education outreach for a ballet company."

During observation night, all 23 students showed poise and concentration; their faces, however, showed joy.

Berry said she hopes NCDT will be able to find additional funding when the grant runs out at the end of the school year.