Feb 22, 2008 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
“I always tell them to look to the first balcony,” said Cheryl Wilkins-Mitchell. “Well, in Dallas they performed in a real theater, and there really was a first balcony to look up to.”
Wilkins-Mitchell directs the overlapping Onondaga Dance Institute (ODI) and Kuumba Project Dancers, both based at the Community Folk Art Center. She took all ten Kuumba Project Dancers to this year’s International Association of Blacks in Dance conference last month for the Youth Showcase, thanks to accelerated rehearsals and the inspired fund-raising of CFAC’s managing director Carol Charles, who wasn’t satisfied with “maybe next year.” They got a standing ovation in Dallas and another one performing, fresh from that triumph, at CFAC’s annual gala on February 2nd. Such exposure has translated to a “new posture, energy and work ethic” among the young dancers.
And next week, when the acclaimed Alvin Ailey II tour performs at Syracuse University and then visits SUNY Oswego, where Wilkins-Mitchell also teaches dance, the Kuumba dancers will welcome colleagues they know.
Akeem Cotton looks forward to seeing Troy Powell again. Powell is Ailey’s associate artistic director and personally congratulated the 14-year-old Danforth School eighth-grader in Dallas after that standing ovation. Akeem Cotton has begun auditioning for summer internships that now seem within his reach. Dallas provided another kind of validation for Kuumba’s only male dancer too. Last Saturday, still exhilarated, he enthused that he’d found “thousands of boys who dance!”
Part perception, part fact, the scarcity of young men dancing extends beyond local ballet classes. The Media Unit’s Joe Corallo is one of two males training at Rae’s Institute of Dance and Movement in Cicero, versus 130 girls. Annie Johnston of Johnston Irish Dance School has 10 boys and over 200 girls currently. Amy Markwardt’s McDonald School of Irish Dance has two guys out of 150 dancers. One is Peter Bush, who travels to Belfast in the North of Ireland in late March for his third World Championship. Six young men danced in November’s Oireachtas, the regional qualifying competition, and he might face as few as twenty at the Worlds. Young men who dance locally must often navigate complex hurdles and stereotypes.
“I was 14 when my father took me off the football field and put me in a ballet class,” said Sean McLeod. “I despised him for years. In fact, he’d drop me off and I’d go down the street. Later I got caught and then he physically took me to class. ”
Now on the other side of working that out, Sean McLeod directs the New York Institute of Dance and Education in Auburn. The dancer, choreographer and producer helped set up South Africa’s National Academy of the Arts and trains corporations and athletes alike. Any truth to a nephew’s claim that tap helped his cross-country running? Absolutely, said 7th-degree Black Belt McLeod, explaining that dance is “movement on purpose” that refines reflexes and motor function.
“My father said I needed to be a triple threat,” McLeod goes on. Though he sang “since infancy” and was on stage by 9, “as a Black man, I needed this to compete. And I hated ballet. I had all the stereotypes — it was gay, it was girly-girl, it wasn’t manly. Two things saved me. In the movie ‘Fame,’ Gene Anthony Ray was Leroy, and his masculinity and his attitude gave me some room. And my mother was a sanctuary of profound psychological genius. I had cousins who were really cruel. They attacked me, yet I wanted to hang out with them! My mother said, ‘Tell your cousins you love them but you won’t hang out with them because they act that way.’ Now, what guy says that? She gave me the words. Then I started hanging around other people who danced and that was profound.”
Many boys start with Hip-Hop and branch out, not always intending on dance careers. Wilkins-Mitchell’s ODI was the first to offer Hip-Hop classes locally. Anthony De La Roza, 14, started that at age seven. Though he likes jazz dancing best now, the Ed Smith School student is diversifying to visual arts.
Brandon Jones, 21, a Nottingham grad in his fourth semester at OCC who wants a graphic arts career, started Hip-Hop in sixth grade. He teaches Hip-Hop for Wilkins-Mitchell, managing 15 students with a large-framed, quietly masculine authority of a much older classroom teacher. One recent Saturday he kept one eye on little brother Dorian — “almost as good a dancer as me,” he said — while students diligently reviewed a dance called “Apologize.” Then Jones said he’d been working on some steps “for you young ladies.” He cut loose with a swirling, witty sashay — all hips and shoulders and head bobbing, unmistakably feminine — as many in the class cracked up, laughing, hands over mouths, eyebrows up, at their suddenly transformed instructor. Not much fazed, he started again. Shrieks again, more doubling over.
Such moments shed light on Akeem Cotton’s early dancing. He started just two years ago with the Danforth in Motion school program, left, pleaded his way back in.
“Right away some girls said, ‘Oh boys don’t dance.’ But Usher dances, so I auditioned. Miss Lorena Williams still says she discovered me,” he smiled. “But I was scared. People called me gay and I was losing my guy friends. I quit until March, then I asked to come back and Miss Nellie Fischer said, since you keep badgering me. One of my best friends, Amani Wortham, she helped me a lot. Then in seventh grade I came to ODI. I saw other boys dancing. The first year Miss Cheryl gave me a full scholarship and I had my first ballet class. I expected ballet to be easier. Miss Cheryl is strict on you.”
Walt Shepperd is strict with his Media Unit teens too. Late once and you’re out of the show. The youth program has provided pre-professional training for over 25 years, broadcasts “Rough Time Live” weekly on cable TV and stages original musicals. As dance captain, Jamesville-Dewitt junior Evan Rohadfox, 16, teaches cast members the dances and stays on top of logistics when shows like “Back to Oz Nation” or last summer’s “Angels with Broken Wings” tour city parks, community centers and malls. The outgoing Rohadfox wants to be an actor and his tap lessons are a means to that goal.
Shepperd said he’s seen male dancers face a “generally mocking attitude until they start strutting their stuff. They win audiences over with their excellence.”
Joe Corallo, 17, a Cicero-North Syracuse senior who’s auditioning for the elite SUNY Purchase college dance program, agrees. He uses ballet in his Hip-Hop routines because he likes its “precision” and lifts weights four days a week, so “I don’t get hassled as much as some guys.” Corallo and fellow CNS senior A.J. Pascarella, 17, work weddings as dancers and sometimes visit local clubs.
“We were at Versatility on the east side and we were the only white guys there,” said Pascarella, “but once they saw what we can do, everything’s set aside. So we hang out with everyone.”
Pascarella is largely self-taught but reels off the styles and contributions of one choreographer after another. He also plays golf and baseball. He said, “My dad always pushes me toward baseball. I don’t know what he thinks about dance. He doesn’t like it, but he respects it.”
Irish step dancing has a huge following throughout upstate New York, much of it stemming from Pat Butler’s mother, with seven certified schools here now. Annie Johnston was a Butler student before starting her school in 1993, with her base in an old dance hall now called the Bally Bay. She spoke by cell phone one recent Sunday afternoon on the way north to practice for a major festival, Watertown Goes Green. Charlie Walck, her student since 6 and now an SU freshman, was with her and got on the phone too. His dad used to drive him to Syracuse after soccer practice two nights a week when he was growing up in Black River, and he considers dancing “pretty athletic.”
Amy Markwardt taught Owego native Peter Bush in Binghamton’s McGuire School and he stayed with her, making the trip north after she started McDonald’s School for Irish Dance in 2001, first in Skaneateles and now in five CNY locations. Peter’s mom gave him a DVD of “Riverdance” when he was 11 that he played “over and over.” Debbie Bush recalled her son, now a freshman at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, would “dance up the aisles in the supermarket and he always had twenty girls around him. He’d dance in talent shows and the kids would whistle and cheer.”
Peter Bush said he still practices everywhere — some steps he works on under his desk in class — and he emerged from middle school’s social challenges unscathed.
“There were always like a couple people who’d give me a look, like, okay — you dance? Ballet? Irish dancing was new and when I’d show them, it was cool.”
Most of these young men mention their mother’s active support; some share dance with siblings. If dads tend more to mixed feelings, WCNY television host George Kilpatrick sets a very public example with his son, George III. Kilpatrick has taken African dance with Biboti Ouikahilo’s Whceva Cultural Arts and last spring they performed together at the Civic Center in ODI’s annual recital.
Kilpatrick said, “My son said I needed a hobby. You know, I get in my own zone and it wasn’t until we were on-stage performing that I really got the bond. I think my son is fearless. And it’s all about family.”
There are 300 dance studios within a 60-mile radius of Syracuse and Auburn, according to Sean McLeod. He sees the freedom and expression in movement as something “men have as much right to as women.” This July he’ll bring the NY Dance Festival to Syracuse, Auburn, Rochester and Geneva simultaneously for four days. Meanwhile, he’s executive-producing a local Dancing with the Stars fundraiser for the Barnes Foundation’s Underground Railroad house that will put the likes of Van Robinson and Michael Heagerty on-stage. McLeod said, “Michael tells me dance has changed his life.”
McDonald’s School of Irish Dance fund-raiser to help send Peter Bush to Belfast next month for the World Irish Dancing Championships. Music & food. Saturday, March 1, 7-11 p.m., St. Patrick’s School, 216 N. Lowell St. Tickets, 436-9400 or 247-6741.