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It takes more than pliés to lift a ballet company to great heights. From dancers to conductors, teachers to makeup artists, this blog series features fascinating insight from ABT experts and an intimate look inside America’s National Ballet Company®. Take a spot at the SideBarre each week to get to know the incredible people behind each bourrée of American Ballet Theatre.

Posts in: ABT RISEView All Posts
Iris Wilson. Photo: Collette Bonaparte Ashmen.
Posted In
ABT RISEGet to know...
November 13, 2020
ABT RISE Weekend Workshops provide students from traditionally underrepresented populations access to classical ballet, while serving all communities across New York City's five boroughs in a warm and welcoming environment. ABT held its first virtual RISE Weekend on October 24-25, 2020.

"In my Afro Caribbean dance class, I give students the freedom to make their own choices, and I encourage them to reach beyond what naturally comes easy to them."

By Iris Wilson

In February 2020, Richard Toda, Artistic Manager of Engagement at American Ballet Theatre, emailed asking if I could teach the Afro Caribbean classes for ABT RISE Weekend Workshop. Overjoyed and completely stoked about teaching for a prestigious organization, I accepted the invitation. As I prepared my lesson, I knew exactly what I wanted to teach the young second and third grade students who would be participating in the ABT RISE weekend.

Fast forward ahead through a time where our world has been completely flipped upside down by COVID-19, police brutality, BLM protest, California wildfires, closing the city, re-opening the city, #endsars, war in the Congo – and the most chaotic presidential election cycle in recent U.S. history to top it all off – I’m delighted to say that I recently taught my third workshop for the ABT RISE program on October 24 and 25. It was a breath of fresh air and the silver lining in the midst of global pandemonium.

It is truly an honor to be a Teaching Artist with ABT RISE. I love the mission of the program, which is to provide students from traditionally underrepresented populations access to ballet and all forms of dance.

It is so pivotal to the development of the whole child. By participating in programs such as this, it enables students to better understand themselves and the world in which they live. It also allows room for children to be expressive and communicate their own ideas while being creative, learning new things, meeting new friends, and having fun.

ABT RISE Weekend participant in Afro Caribbean dance class.
ABT RISE Weekend participant in Afro Caribbean dance class.

While ballet is the central point, ABT RISE also offers classes in other forms of dance, including jazz, modern, hip hop, and Afro Caribbean. In my Afro Caribbean dance class, I give students the freedom to make their own choices, and I encourage them to reach beyond what naturally comes easy to them. I motivate them to take risks by stepping outside of what’s comfortable or familiar, to test their own boundaries, and to use their imagination.

ABT RISE students have learned dances from Haiti, Cuba, and Dominican Republic, as well as free movement styles found throughout the Caribbean Islands. I teach students the history of the folklore and to recognize the contribution of these cultures to the fabric of our society. This increases their understanding and appreciation of the diversity and value of all people.

Dance, as we already know, is amazingly beneficial for children. It builds a sense of community, and brings joy and happiness to participants.

In the midst of a pandemic where social distancing and masks are mandatory to save lives, we are all on edge and feeling the negative emotional impacts of isolation and being apart from one another. Now more than ever, dance class seems even more magical.

While children may not be able to dance in the physical dance studio and be physically close to their friends and teachers right now, the beauty of technology has allowed the ABT RISE program to continue to bring dance to the lives of children and to enable them to feel connected once again.

As I observed the children expressing themselves through movement during the workshop, I couldn’t help but notice that their smiles had become contagious. The presence of community was there and it felt so organic.

Watching everyone dancing together on the screen in their little boxes restored a new sense of togetherness, no matter how far apart we were. The magic was back in the same way it was before social distancing became our new normal.

Allowing children to unmute themselves so their voices can be heard was an added bonus and a special treat for me, as one student gleefully shared how she loves dancing and that my class was the “best ever” out of the entire weekend. This made my heart smile!

Iris Wilson was an original featured cast member of the three-time Tony Award®-winning Broadway musical Fela! and toured with the show nationally and internationally. She is currently a dance educator at P.S. 9 and a Teaching Artist for ABT RISE.

"By participating in programs such as ABT RISE, it enables students to better understand themselves and the world in which they live. It also allows room for children to be expressive and communicate their own ideas, while being creative, learning new things, meeting new friends, and having fun."

"I teach students the history of the folklore and to recognize the contribution of these cultures to the fabric of our society. This increases their understanding and appreciation of the diversity and value of all people."

"The beauty of technology has allowed the ABT RISE program to continue to bring dance to the lives of children and to enable them to feel connected once again."

Richard Toda.
Posted In
ABT RISEGet to know...
November 10, 2020
ABT RISE Weekend Workshops provide students from traditionally underrepresented populations access to classical ballet, while serving all communities across New York City’s five boroughs in a warm and welcoming environment. ABT held its first virtual RISE Weekend on October 24-25, 2020.

"As Artistic Manager of ABT Engagement, my role is to design and host the program and bring together a faculty to inspire our NYC kids."

By Richard Toda

As I write this, 48 hours ago we brought our virtual RISE weekend to a close. While the glow of the weekend remains, let me share about the program, my role, and some of the wonderful educators who shared their expertise.

The ABT Engagement team welcomed second and third grade New York City public school students to participate in a free series of dance classes and activities over the weekend of October 24-25 via Zoom. As Artistic Manager of ABT Engagement, my role is to design and host the program and bring together a faculty to inspire our NYC kids.

Everyone has different learning styles. I’m a visual learner, so in designing our RISE Programs, I visualize the flow of the weekend and how that will support our student outcomes.

The ABT RISE Weekend Workshop is an intensive two days offering almost three hours of dance instruction each day. Rest times are woven into the schedule, with snack time where we show dance video clips and breaks between class offerings. Our days start and end with community building sessions.

During the morning session, expectations are shared, including how to meet our teachers, more complex ideas of what success looks like today, and reminders such as, “Those steps I know, those steps can grow.”

The morning session is an important icebreaker to set everyone up to be ready and successful, especially over Zoom. It has also been important to offer students a variety of entry points to further their interest in dance.

ABT RISE Weekend schedules include a daily ballet class, followed by a pairing of either Afro Caribbean and Modern classes, or Contemporary and Hip-Hop classes for our second and third hours of the day.

ABT RISE Weekend participant.
ABT RISE Weekend participant.

We enlisted ballet faculty from our own Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School Children’s Division, Breana Reed and Alexis Andrews, along with ABT Teaching Artists Mariana Ranz, Carrie Demos, and Kelby Brown, to provide consistency with ABT’s National Training Curriculum. Students also experienced Hip-Hop guest teachers Shaahida Samuels and William Rhem and Contemporary classes with Justin Dominic.

As a former student in Newark Arts High School years ago, Justin Dominic had participated in ABT’s Make a Ballet program. He then danced professionally with Carolyn Dorfman Dance, among other artists and companies. What a joy it was to watch Justin lead and demonstrate Contemporary movement vocabulary with such rich detail for ABT RISE students.

Another admired dance educator who has taught at our previous ABT RISE workshops is Iris Wilson. Iris danced in the Broadway company of Fela! and is now a New York City public school dance teacher. She will share her perspective on the virtual RISE Weekend here on SideBarre later this week.

Part of our network is Harlem School of the Arts (HSA), an ABT-certified school. HSA’s Chief Officer of Education and Creative Programs, Aubrey Lynch, and Dance Chair, Leyland Simmons, lead a conservatory dance program for HSA students on Saint Nicholas Avenue and 145th Street. Leyland taught ballet class to our oldest RISE workshop students on Saturday, and Aubrey and Leyland together introduced students to the possibilities for next steps in their dance education at HSA on Sunday.

Our NYC youth are resilient, and like all dancers, they search out and find community. We’ve now had students who joined us in person at our 890 Broadway studios for our first RISE Workshop, attended our RISE Camp in August, and returned this fall for the RISE Weekend.

I’m so glad these students have found ABT RISE to be a source of community and fun learning experiences that deepened their love of dance. A few of the comments shared during our final reflections show their progress and passion: “I listened,” “I focused better today,” “I had so much fun,” and “I had a great time at all the classes.”

Richard Toda leads educational programs throughout New York City as Artistic Manager, ABT Engagement.

"The ABT Engagement team welcomed second and third grade New York City public school students to participate in a free series of dance classes and activities over the weekend of October 24-25 via Zoom."

"Our NYC youth are resilient, and like all dancers, they search out and find community."

"I’m so glad these students have found ABT RISE to be a source of community and fun learning experiences."