Make your move: Turning at-risk teens into tomorrows dance talent
At-risk kids with ballet dreams find support — and life-changing opportunities — at Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Future Dance program
I’ve twice seen Ariel Triunfo dance. The first time was three years ago, when Nevada Ballet Theatre’s 2010 summer intensive classes were wrapping up and the parents of so many ballerinas gathered in Nevada Ballet Theatre’s large Studio B to watch the session’s concluding performance. Whether it was tap dancing, modern or classical ballet, Triunfo was always the standout. Her big brown eyes, filled with determination and joy, lit up the makeshift stage; her face and movements exuded charisma and personality; and her feet, wrapped tightly in pointe shoes for the ballet portion, moved with strict precision across the Marley floor. At 14, she was one of the older dancers in the pageant.
Like so many girls, Triunfo has wanted to be a ballerina since she was very young but, like too many, her parents couldn’t afford to buy her lessons. Ballet classes are expensive. Nevada Ballet Theatre’s tuition for young dancers begins at $55 a month, for a one-hour weekly class, and the price climbs from there as students add classes or advance in levels. Once a dancer reaches the academy’s upper echelons, level seven or eight, the starting tuition is as high as $295 a month. Add to this the regular expense of tights, leotards, costumes and ballet shoes (pointe shoes run about $70 a pair) and growing a ballerina is no small investment.
In New York, Triunfo’s parents managed to find their then-five-year-old daughter dance classes through various community centers, but these ended a year and a half later when the family moved to Las Vegas. Then, when Triunfo was nine, her mother spotted a notice posted at the public library that would change her daughter’s life forever.
Nevada Ballet Theatre’s community outreach program, Future Dance, was auditioning children for scholarships. Recipients would receive dance classes at the West Las Vegas Arts Center through a federally funded national initiative whereby Nevada Ballet Theatre teamed up with Creative Communities to bus kids from public housing into community dance classes.
Terané Comito, Nevada Ballet Theatre’s director of education and outreach, remembers Triunfo’s audition. “Right away, when we saw her, we were just blown away. That’s how much natural talent she had. She had perfect turnout, great feet, musicality for days, flexibility — but no real serious training.” That’s what Future Dance gave her. They were so impressed with the young Triunfo that the ballet teachers whisked her straight into Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Academy, bypassing the community classes, where she began studying alongside tuition-paying students.
That was eight years ago. Triunfo’s been a Future Dance scholar ever since. And this past June, with two other dance scholars, Karri Jonas and Carolyn Roorda, she became one of the first graduates of the Future Dance program.
For 20 years, Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Future Dance has been offering free after-school dance classes to students in local at-risk elementary schools. Twice a week, from October through May, students in the third through fifth grades train in gymnasiums and cafeterias with Future Dance’s teaching artists. The 28-week study, which includes modern, hip-hop, jazz and ballet, culminates in a grand spring concert for friends and family in the theatre at Las Vegas Academy. Currently, 12 schools and 650 students participate in the nonprofit program, including Elaine Wynn Elementary, where Jonas first began, and Gilbert CVT Elementary, where Roorda was discovered.
“It changes children’s lives,” says Erika Kirby, a fourth-grade teacher at Harvey N. Dondero Elementary who’s also been a Future Dance teacher for nine years. “The children that I teach every day in the class would never be able to afford dance classes otherwise. Their families struggle just to get by or just to deal with the basic necessities.”
Nearly the entire student body at Dondero signs up to participate, but only 130 students are accepted. Behavior, attendance and grades all factor into the decision process. “They don’t have to have the highest grades, but it’s really an incentive to be in school and do your best, so that you get to be in dance class,” Kirby says of the program that, for dance’s recent rise in popularity (due to shows like “So You think You Can Dance”), attracts nearly as many boys as girls. While free after-school care certainly contributes to the demand for the program, that’s only a part of it.
“They’re really fun, upbeat, nonstop classes. You’re moving the whole time. We have everything from sashays and triplets to hip hop combinations across the floor, to kicks and leaps,” says Comito, who developed the choreography-focused curriculum with the final performance in mind.
And for the kids, the takeaway — beyond the new moves — can be immense. In some cases, this first introduction to dance leads kids to the Las Vegas Academy, then future careers in the arts. For others, it’s even more significant. “A lot of the times, kids that are really shy or withdrawn and they’re obviously having home problems, they come out of their shell. It’s their time to be free and be themselves,” says Comito. “It’s just amazing. Teachers and principals will come to me and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, this kid is a completely different kid in this class.’”
Select Future Dance Students — about three per participating school — are offered scholarships to attend Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Dance Discovery classes with everything covered, from tights to shoes. Of 90 ballet students in the Dance Discovery program, those showing the most potential will win full-ride scholarships to attend Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Academy, as did Jonas, Roorda and, of course, Triunfo. (Currently, there are 29 scholarship students training at Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Summerlin site.) That’s a powerful springboard to a promising future: Jonas went on to major in dance at Las Vegas Academy and she earned a full dance scholarship to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where she began this fall. Roorda also attended Las Vegas Academy, then received a dance scholarship to attend Southern Utah University.
As for Triunfo, her path is a little different. Upon graduating as a Future Dance scholar, Triunfo, who did homeschooling, was offered a trainee position with Nevada Ballet Theatre’s professional company from James Canfield, Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Artistic Director. It’s the first time Canfield has offered a trainee slot — a coveted position — to a Future Dance graduate.
Confidence, fortitude, personality
The second time I saw Triunfo dance was last week. It was a routine company class, again in the large Studio B, and this time she, yet to turn 18, was one of the youngest in the group. Dressed in a purple leotard with a low-cut back (uniforms aren’t enforced on company members the way they are on students) and working through standard floor exercises — glissades, jetés, pirouettes — Triunfo exuded the confidence, fortitude and abundant personality I’d remembered from years earlier. Again, her eyes shone.
So, I’m a bit mystified when we sit down to talk, to discover how shy she is. She speaks in soft tones and wears a guarded demeanor when she explains that a free ride isn’t necessarily an easy road. Beyond the usual challenges a ballerina faces, like uncooperative bodies and physical injuries, Triunfo says of her early years at the academy, “I felt very out of place. I was shy. I really didn’t speak much and I took every rule and correction very seriously. Sometimes, I think, the other girls were like, ‘What’s with her?’”
And Comito’s rules for scholars are strict: In order to maintain scholar status, a student can’t have more than three absences per year; she can’t miss any dress rehearsals or performances; she’s required to act as an ambassador for the program; and once she reaches the fourth level, she must act as a teacher’s assistant for the younger classes.
“I never had an issue with any of the rules. They were there, so I followed them,” Triunfo says. But for several years, just getting to class was a challenge. When she was 11 years old, family problems left her without transportation and the young dancer was made to travel via three city buses, for as many as four hours each day just to get to dance class.
“We moved around a lot, which was also financial. We’d get moved from public housing to public housing, so that would also change the bus routes,” Triunfo explains. “The hardest was when I was coming from public school. From there I had to take the bus home to the bus stop by my house, and from that bus stop I had to run to catch the bus to get here, with all my school stuff and all my dance stuff.” She was 13 at the time.
Still, she insists, in her quiet voice, she never once thought to give up. Her tenacity was a factor in Canfield’s decision to invite her to train with the company.
“When a young child who is devoted to dance makes the decision to follow their dream of one day dancing in a professional ballet company, they often have little understanding of the challenges of a career of this nature,” Canfield writes to me in an email. “Yet, some find their path as an escape into a performing arts world that allows them to deal with life’s trials and tribulations and communicate with others in the most extraordinary way.”
His words call to mind Triunfo’s exuberance on stage and Comito’s description of the elementary school kids who suddenly bloom in the after-school classes, “Kids that are really shy or withdrawn ... they come out of their shell. It’s their time to be free and be themselves.”