Many teachers say that it’s always about that one student. For Nikki Lewis, curriculum developer and teaching artist with Ballet Memphis, one moment and one girl in particular stands out.
One of her students at the Gaston Community Center in South Memphis approached her and said that she wanted to stop taking dance.
“She wanted to quit,” Nikki said, “ and I asked her to make sure she was making the best decision for herself. She ended up coming back, wanting to continue her dance studies. When I asked her why she said, ‘I already know that I’m going to go down the wrong path without it.’
“This is when I knew how much dancing means to some of my girls.”
Ballet Memphis started its program at Gaston Community Center in September 2012, working with Knowledge Quest, an afterschool enrichment program. Founded in 1998 by Marlon Foster, Knowledge Quest is for students who live in the 38106 and 38126 ZIP codes, two of the most underserved in the city.
“We all know that the arts are being diminished if not cut in the schools,” said Marlon, “and that is affecting the kids, both culturally and academically. We knew we wanted to offer arts but we want to partner with groups that truly understand our mission and want a very intentional, very focused relationship.”
Enter Ballet Memphis.
At Gaston, Nikki teaches all forms of dance from ballet to African to hip-hop to jazz in what is known as “Dance Club.” Just a few months after she started working with them, Nikki watched seven of her students perform as representatives of Ballet Memphis at the opening of the Kroc Center.
“Afterwards I sat down with the girls to talk about the experience,” said Nikki. “I still could feel their excitement at being onstage, seeing the result of all their hard work. They were thrilled.”
She then asked four of her students to join Ballet Memphis’ production of Wizard of Oz at The Orpheum. From rehearsals to hair and makeup, they saw what it takes to put on a professional show.
“When Wizard of Oz finished its run, the girls were so excited,” said Nikki. “They shared their experience with other Dance Club members. They understood that you just don’t just get to ‘that place’ as a performer or artist; it takes dedication, discipline, being on time and having the confidence.”
According to Sadaria, 10, it was an amazing experience. Performing at The Orpheum was the first time the fifth grader at Graves Elementary School had ever been on a real stage.
“It was so exciting but it also was a lot of work,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes in to dancing.”
Wyneisha, 12, and in seventh grade at Cummings School, agrees.
“I had never taken dance before Ms. Nikki,” she said. “And I thought it was very cool to dance with a professional company; I love watching and learning.”
Nikki took note of the talent inherent in some of her girls, including Sadaria and Wyneisha, and approached Janet Parke, director of the Ballet Memphis School, about their training.
“I know my limitations as a teacher, and as a dancer who trained at the Ballet Memphis School, I know firsthand how they could benefit, and in so many ways other than classical training.”
So, this fall, Sadaria, Wyneisha and their Dance Club friends Teunna and Secoya are officially starting classes at Ballet Memphis, as well as continuing their work with Nikki through Knowledge Quest. Their studies are made possible through the generosity of Ballet Memphis’ supporters.
“I’m so excited to be studying at the Ballet Memphis School,” said Sadaria. “I love dance; I think it’s now my ‘thing.’”