Tanji Harper, the new hip-hop instructor, teaches a class at The Academy of Movement and Music, part of the Equity Initiative that seeks increased diversity in the arts. | Shanel Romain

An 8-year-old girl from the Austin neighborhood of Chicago who started at the Academy of Movement and Music, Oak Park, seemed like most of the other dancers in her class. She had parents who believed in her and wanted her to have culture in her life. But her dad had to take two jobs and her mom worked as a maid and nanny to make such an opportunity possible, especially since the young, Black dancer stuck with it long term.

“It is very, very expensive to train as a dancer,” Sarita Connelly said. Dance, like many sports, requires an available caregiver to get the student to practice at various times of day, up to multiple days a week, she explained. “And how does that play out with the family’s ability to pay for those professional-level, professional-track lessons? Even one to two lessons a week can be very difficult for families of color,” she said. Then there are the expenses of leotards, tights and shoes, with pointe shoes costing up to $120. 

Connelly now teaches dance at The Academy, 605 Lake St., as well as at Loyola University Chicago. She also has a consulting business following a career in finance after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. A professional choreographer, she is also president of the Oak Park Area Arts Council Board of Directors.

Talia Sitismondi, 17, (center) follows her dance instructer’s lead during their class at The Academy on October 30. | Shanel Romain

The first teacher of that 8-year-old whose parents worked so hard — both in dance and as a mentor in life, was Stephanie Clemens, founder of The Academy. Clemens retired this summer, handing the reins over to her son, JP Tenuta, who is now director of the school.

When Connelly was in seventh grade, Clemens introduced her to another dancer’s parent who had her MBA from Harvard and had gone to Sarah Lawrence College for undergrad. That introduction paved the way for Connelly’s future. “It was that Black mother who said, ’I think you’d be perfect for Sarah Lawrence,’ and she started recruiting me in junior high,” she said.

Being involved in dance and Clemens’ influence also shaped the young dancer’s path.

“[Stephanie] has mentored me over four decades in various stages of my life — professional, dance career and as a parent of a young dancer,” Connelly said. “Everything I’ve done either artistically or even professionally has some sort of genesis from Stephanie Clemens.”

Now with Clemens departure, the spirit of that mentoring along with Clemens’ and others’ strong desire to bring in more students of color to the studio, a new program is being launched: The Stephanie Clemens Equity Initiative, led by Connelly.

“The Academy doors are open to all who want to experience the joys of dance and music,” Clemens said. “We want to reach out to our community through this Equity Initiative to assure people that these joys are available to families struggling to deal with tough economic times.”

Connelly felt the Initiative should be named for Clemens because “she had given so much to so many people over the last 40 years” and so it would be “a legacy that lives on” in Clemens’ name.  

Tanji Harper, the new hip-hop dance instructor at The Academy of Movement and Music teaches class i n the performance space on Saturday, October 30. | Shanel Romain.

The Academy plans to begin by awarding scholarships to its youngest students. Ideas for finding interested dancers include outreach at the Oak Park elementary schools; St. Catherine/St. Lucy Parish, located in Oak Park, which also serves the Austin neighborhood of Chicago; and possibly other surrounding neighborhoods.

“You have to build that pipeline,” Connelly said. “So to have diversity in the older levels, you have to start at the younger levels. You also need to fill in the older levels as well.”

COVID also affected the number of students at the beginner levels because those classes did not work as well virtually. This impacted the ability to keep the pipeline diverse, she noted.

They hope to have the program in place by summer of 2022. The Academy is looking for donors and are expecting to fund half while donors provide the other half for the scholarship initiative. The Academy is looking for outside funders, such as community members who believe in equity in the arts, along with business owners. Connelly said they would especially like to create partnerships with business owners of color who can create mentoring opportunities for younger students through college age.

The Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee at the Academy is also making efforts to attract students of color in other ways, including offering classes in Hip Hop with Tanji Harper, inviting guest artists of color to their studio and building a network of diverse parents of dancers as a resource.

To learn more about the Stephanie Clemens Equity Initiative email: academyofmovementandmusic@gmail.com. Donations can be mailed to The Academy of Movement and Music, F/B/O-Stephanie Clemens Equity Initiative, 605 Lake St., Oak Park, IL 60302. 

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