Dancing in the mirror of life


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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing reporter

Diversity is a key part of the Academy of Music and Movement, the dance school founded in 1971 by Stephanie Clemens, and Momenta, their resident performing arts company. People with disabilities are included, even recruited, for classes and dance opportunities. An all-boys class gets males involved. Inclusiveness extends to teachers and choreographers as well. Different cultures and areas of the world influence the pieces performed at shows.

"I work hard at this," said Clemens, director of the Academy and artistic director of Momenta.

In spite of their efforts, less diversity is evident when it comes to people of color at the highest level of dance classes at the Academy, which includes high school students — but one stands out: Nia Coke.

Muscular and lithe while she dances, philosophical and wise when she talks, demonstrating grace and strength during both, Coke is an OPRF graduating senior who will head to Columbia University in New York in the fall for her academic studies. She will continue dancing through their sister institution, Barnard College.

Coke began ballet class at age 3 at the Academy. While trying other activities — sports, piano — dancing "turned into a passion," according to Nia's mom, Karen Coke, who now marvels at her fluidity as she dances.

"You can express the best part of yourself and grow," added Courtney Coke, Nia's dad. "Dance teaches life lessons."

Her folks also see her as a role model, inviting African American friends with young daughters to a performance so they can see that being onstage and dancing in modern and ballet styles "is within reach."

At the Academy, Clemens strives to make all feel welcome, including fostering friendships with others when Coke started as a preschooler.

"I like to make every child feel at home," she said, "whether they have a disability or are a person of color."

Even with those efforts, and close bonds formed among the dancers, some who have grown up together during the last 15 years, Coke felt different at times.

"Everyone is kind to each other," she said, "but you can feel overlooked and you're going to stand out." When you are the only person of color in the room, you're going to get noticed. However, when it comes to assigning parts, especially in the ballet world, it seems others will always be preferred, she observed.

Even shopping for tights or shoes can make an African American dancer feel different since they typically match the skin color of white dancers.

"Stephanie offered to dye them for me," Coke said. All-black dance groups dye their shoes and tights, but she decided not to so she wouldn't stand out even more.

But Coke doesn't define herself by such complications, preferring to focus on the positives of her time with the Academy.

"Being here helped me look internally, reflect on what I was feeling and why I was dancing," Coke said. "And the performance experience created a sense of dedication and drive. Ballet is hard — you are looking at yourself in the mirror and utilizing and accepting your assets."

When Sarita Smith Childs, an Academy alum, returned to Momenta as a guest choreographer and started working with Coke just over a year ago, they formed a mentoring relationship with unspoken understanding. Smith Childs, also African American, started at the Academy as a child and moved on to a professional dance and choreography career. She prepared Coke for her senior solo in modern dance, which included West African influences, for the Momenta Spring Recital in March.

"I'm introverted and she brought out this drive in me to move," Coke said. "I've been more confident in dance and at school because I believe in myself."

Smith Childs saw Coke's potential as a dancer, but also as a leader. Last summer, Coke teamed with her sister to bring summer activities to 25 kindergarten-age children in Jamaica — teaching dance, naturally — and this summer, she will join Smith Childs as her choreographic assistant with the Joffrey Ballet Community Engagement Program.

"She has the capacity to blossom," Smith Childs said. "She's on a great trajectory."

Art mirrors life, they say, and dance truly does for Nia Coke — from the realities of being a minority to becoming a young woman with great potential and loving supporters behind her.

Reader Comments

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Linda Francis from Oak Park  

Posted: June 7th, 2017 3:04 PM

Nia is a wonderful young lady who, I know, will go on to do great things. Her experience shows the value in ensuring that all of our children have the opportunity to find and nurture their gifts.

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