Pliés and empowerment: Des Moines programs aim to offer dance and magic to children

Pliés and empowerment: Des Moines programs aim to offer dance and magic to children ANDREA MAY SAHOURI Des Moines Register | 10/23/2021

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Jae’Auna Brantley likes to round her hands up toward the sky and plié— a true ballerina.

When Usher or the Korean-pop group BTS plays, she can’t help but slip in a little shake of the hips or show off her cartwheels.

In her Des Moines ballet studio, Jae’Auna, 7, said: “I feel happy.”

On Oct. 6, dressed in her pink tights, black leotard, and ballet shoes, she reached for the barre next to her and proved she can touch her head with her toes.

“Watch what I can do!” she cried. At the barre, Jae’Auna stands tall and elegant. She performs the ballet positions, demi pliés, relevés, and passés .

The King Elementary student is a “Swan,” a class of Black and brown kids taking free, year-long ballet lessons at Mainframe Studios through the nonprofit organization SEEDS.

The SEEDS-sponsored program is one of several Des Moines programs centering Black and brown children in traditional, and traditionally white-dominated, ballet.

“When you’re intentionally creating a space for movement, magic happens,” Sarah Jae, co-founder of SEEDS, told the Des Moines Register.

Jae’Auna’s class, which began late September, makes Black and brown kids feel powerful and confident, Jae, 34, said. It strengthens community creativity and representation, and makes dance more accessible. Through dance, kids are taught about the intersections between movement, arts, culture, and tradition.

Ballet Des Moines is also partnering with community organizations already working with children on arts programs — including the Oakridge Neighborhood, the Gregory & Suzie Glazer Burt Boys & Girls Club, and Al Éxito — and just started hosting free dance workshops in October.

With similar goals as SEEDS, Ballet Des Moines wants “to share dialogue, to learn about other communities through their creative expression,” said Beau Kenyon, the dance company’s director of education and outreach.

“It becomes a true cross-cultural dialogue. We don’t want to perform and just leave. We want to build authentic relationships and invest in our communities,” Kenyon, 42, said.

Jae and Kenyon have both seen the need in Des Moines for these types of programs, they said. Jae had to create a waitlist because of high demand, she said. With more funding, she hopes to expand dance programming. And Kenyon has felt so much enthusiasm from the kids and the community, he said — Ballet Des Moines has plans to continue collaborating with organizations in the winter and spring.

With more programs and partnerships on the way for both organizations, SEEDS, Ballet Des Moines and other community organizations are among a growing movement for movement in Des Moines.

When asked what dance moves were Intisar Khoudi’s favorite, the 13-year-old responded with a sly smile and said “nothing.”

But judging by the laughs, smiles, and creativity she poured into Oakridge’s Oct. 4 workshop with Ballet Des Moines, it seemed she could have answered the question differently.

“Dancers, artists: Don’t be shy — we’re going to get to know each other through how we move,” said Stephanie Martinez, an Indigenous Latina and Chicago-based choreographer who led the October workshop with Jordan Colbert, an Oakridge youth success navigator.

Martinez guided the kids through contemporary ballet movements that will be performed at her upcoming show with Ballet Des Moines called “Kiss.”

Intisar — meaning “triumph” in Arabic — joined the few dozen kids as they moved their hips to the left and right with Martinez to the tune of the Black Eyed Pea’s “Meet Me Halfway.”

She twisted and turned across the Oakridge community center gym, her arms fluid. And later in the workshop, the kids created their own choreography, combining the moves they had just learned with moves they had known through the many different cultures they embrace. (Oakridge is home to numerous immigrant and refugee families from all over the world. Intisar said her family moved to Des Moines from Sudan).

“It was pretty fun, I’m not going to lie,” Intisar admitted. When asked again if she has a favorite dance move, she did a 360-twist and said “maybe.”

In October, Ballet Des Moines, along with Martinez, hosted a similar workshop with the Boys & Girls Club at Drake University and are planning future collaborations with the Latinx-centered organization Al Éxito.

With these programs, Ballet Des Moines and SEEDS want to help strengthen the arts that already exist in Des Moines’ communities.

“We’re not ‘bringing in arts and culture’ in our communities, because arts and culture already exist,” said Jami Milne, 41, Ballet Des Moines’ creative director.

Colbert, who helps the Oakridge kids get involved with the arts, said she has seen firsthand how children benefit socially, emotionally, and academically through movement and the arts.

“I wish people could see the great work we’re doing here, for our kids. For our community,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”

“Art, dance, and movement are essential to a child’s development, because it allows them to experiment and play. Plus, creativity is the ultimate freedom where they can express themselves,” Colbert, 37, continued.

Dance has been inaccessible to many young people because it can be expensive, said Krisilyn Frazier, a hip hop dance instructor at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. Membership fees, competitions, dance and recital clothing, and travel expenses add up.

Which is why free programs like SEEDS and the collaborations with Ballet Des Moines are so important when it comes to breaking barriers in the dance community, Frazier said.

“They are the ones who are bridging the gaps,” she said.

Tara Washington, 29, was able to enroll four of her daughters in the “Swan” class. She didn’t have that same opportunity growing up.

“For my kids to be able to do this—that’s a good feeling,” she said. “It opens doors.”

Jae’Auna had never been in a dance class before, said the girl’s aunt and caretaker, Deb Simmons, 47. If the “Swan” classes weren’t free, Simmons would not have been able to afford it.

“It’s a beautiful thing in our community, a blessing,” Simmons said. “And the diversity in the program ... it shows you can be anything you want to be — even a ballet dancer.”

“Here, it doesn’t matter what skin color you are. You just love,” Simmons continued.

Four months ago Jae’Auna’s mother died of a sudden heart attack. Simmons now cares for Jae’Auna and her five siblings.

Ballet gives the young girl structure, Simmons said. It gives her hope.

“Every day she cries for her mother, but not at dance class,” Simmons said.