A new collaborative program between Dance Canvas and Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, designed to train and support young Black ballet dancers, will start this fall. CATALYST will include five scholarship students and focus on aspiring professional dancers ages 12–16.
Much like catalysts in chemistry are used to precipitate a chemical reaction, the hope for this program is that it will bring about change in terms of Black representation in ballet companies.
Angela Harris, Dance Canvas’ executive artistic director, says CATALYST was born from conversations she had with John Welker, director of Terminus, last June. “We [talked] about what I faced as I was coming up professionally, what I see, what he sees and what we identified as ways that we could use our respective organizations to make resources available,” Harris says.
At a time when the whole world was having conversations about race and representation, Terminus and Dance Canvas began to look inward, at how they could better serve all members of their community. “It was very clear that with a name like ours that represents one of the founding names of Atlanta, we needed to do better to represent Atlanta through all facets of the organization,” Welker says.
CATALYST will begin this fall. It will combine Terminus’ dance-education program with Dance Canvas’ mentorship and career development. While students take technique classes at Terminus’ ballet school, Dance Canvas will pair each with a mentor, a dancer who can support the students and serve as inspiration.
Auditions will be held this summer, with five dancers chosen as the inaugural CATALYST cohort. “We wanted to give ourselves a long runway to make sure that we are properly talking about the why behind this program,” Welker says.
It takes only one look at the composition of most ballet companies to understand the why. Black dancers are historically underrepresented in ballet companies, and despite years of conversations about race, there’s yet to be a huge shift in making them more diverse.
“We’re having the same conversations that we had 20 years ago when I entered the professional dance field,” Harris says. “I am disheartened, as somebody who loves this industry, that we haven’t made a lot of progress.”
Both Harris and Welker had a strong desire to address this lack of representation, and to do so by using their organizations to provide training and support for Black ballet dancers in Atlanta.
Two organizations coming together this way allows for a multifaceted approach to dance education. Not only will students have access to some of the best ballet training in Atlanta, they’ll also learn how to develop a career in the ballet world and have access to a vast network of people in the field.
The effects of this multifaceted approach extend into other parts of Atlanta’s dance community, as well. The program plans to partner with local Black-owned dance businesses, starting with Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet, through which the students will receive dancewear. “Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet has been an independently owned, Black-operated operation for some time now,” Welker says. “We want to bring attention to that work.”
Welker and Harris hope to grow CATALYST through the years. They’re starting with five scholarship students but in three years would like to have 20. A collegiate program could be in the future, Harris says. And maybe one day, CATALYST will become a model replicated in other regions of the country.
For Harris, CATALYST is a way to pay it forward. “I’m a former professional Black ballet dancer, so one of the big things for me is trying to assist with making the path easier for the next generation.”
It’s not an easy path. Because the hiring process for ballet companies is mostly subjective, Harris says, it’s easy for artistic directors to leave people out for reasons that have nothing to do with talent. It’s also easy for a company to claim they simply haven’t seen any high-quality Black ballet dancers. And if an aspiring dancer of color goes to a ballet performance, they likely won’t see many people like them onstage.
CATALYST wants to break those barriers. “There is an obligation for the ballet world to diversify,” Harris says. “For the sake of growing new audiences, but also for the sake of representing what this art form should be, in America and beyond. We should all be able to see ourselves onstage.”