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Photo: Patrick Frenette.
Iris Wilson. Photo: Collette Bonaparte Ashmen.
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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."