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Dance program invites participation, encourages excellence

Advocate staff photo by A.J. SISCO

Not every teenager dreams of spending three weeks of summer vacation engaged in rigorous exercise while memorizing complex dance combinations. But 35 students, ages 12-18, are thrilled to be practicing technique and rehearsing from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week in the Summer Intensive dance program.

“There’s a lot expected of you, to take in a lot of information in a short period of time,” said Jaelyn Robinson, 16. “But it’s fun at the same time.”

The New Orleans Recreation Department Commission and the New Orleans Ballet Association founded the NORDC/NOBA Center for Dance in 1992 as a groundbreaking cultural and community partnership with a mission of making dance accessible to all school-age children. This season marks its 21st Summer Intensive program.

Some of the students who won spots in the advanced program through auditions are learning an excerpt of “Return,” a Dance Theatre of Harlem piece set to James Brown’s music. Robert Garland, who choreographed the piece for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, is teaching the New Orleans students, along with Donald Williams and Kellye Saunders, who performed in the original cast of “Return.”

Others students are mastering excerpts from Trey McIntyre’s “Mercury Half Life,” set to Queen songs, and SpUrbans (spontaneous urban performances), both taught by McIntyre himself. The local dancers were to perform six works July 25 at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts alongside professional dancers from the two companies.

“They learn so fast. It’s not like kids’ work,” Garland said of the NORDC/NOBA students.

Because the preprofessional dancers have often participated in dance workshops with touring companies, they are accustomed to the stringent demands.

“That’s what sets this program apart,” said Jenny Hamilton, NOBA’s executive director, who takes ample pride in the students’ work ethic.

Garland believes working like professionals and participating in the creative process “extends their brain patterns.”

Educators who were focusing on science and math a few years ago are reintroducing arts to the curriculum, Garland said.

Starting with one location and 30 children, the NORDC/NOBA Center for Dance program has evolved into year-round, open-track and preprofessional classes and summer camps. Every NORDC facility offers dance classes, which can include ballet, tap, modern and hip-hop. Participation in classes remains free in order to “eliminate barriers to access,” Hamilton said.

The preprofessional program offers opportunities to excel to highly motivated students, ages 9-18, at the Chevron NORDC Lyons Center, Tulane’s McWilliams Hall and the Treme NORDC Center.

“It’s hugely rare for kids who can study at no cost,” Garland said.

Jasmine Forest, a NORDC/NOBA ballet instructor, started taking lessons at 9. It was not long before “that’s all I wanted to do,” she said. Five alums now teach at NORDC recreation centers.

When the fall schedule is launched, preprofessional students will perform at NORDC/NOBA open houses, demonstrating the level of expertise they have achieved, so parents can see dance is a possible a career.

Hamilton wants to “obliterate the barriers” that might prevent participation.

NOBA maintains an inventory of leotards, tights and dance shoes for families who might have difficulty purchasing appropriate gear. Pointe ballet shoes can cost as much as $100. NOBA also provides a stock of $5 tickets to MainStage productions at Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts for families of children enrolled in class.

“There’s so much desire on the part of parents to provide those opportunities to their children,” Hamilton said.

For information about tuition-free fall classes and locations, visit

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