This weekend, the Dance Theatre of Harlem performs as part of the Dance St. Louis fall season. Yet the company is here to teach as well as perform. Since Oct. 27, teaching artist Theara Ward has been teaching ballet and diaspora history at Normandy High.
“The main thing is for young people to understand history, how they connect to history and how history connects to them, their culture, their community, but also how the arts can be used as a powerful tool to express yourself,” Ward said.
Ward danced with the company from 1977 to 1988 before shifting focus to musical theater. She returned to the company when it reformed after an eight-year hiatus.
Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook formed the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, amidst the growing civil rights movement. The company’s school, educational programing and performances were developed to give children in Harlem the opportunity to learn classical ballet. The diaspora program is an extension of the original goal of teaching technique alongside history.
“It is amazing to watch these young people learn ballet and also connecting culturally,” Ward said.
Janet Brown at Dance St. Louis asked Dance Theatre of Harlem to perform in St. Louis and teach the civil rights, black power, and hip hop sections of the company’s diaspora curriculum in area schools. At first the students were wary but intrigued.
“They looked at me like I was a creature from another planet, but they were really open and excited because they’d heard about Dance Theatre of Harlem, and they wanted to learn more,” Ward said.
As the curriculum progresses, students perform routines that connect movement to words associated with the civil rights movement, the history of slavery, and the link between traditional African dance, ballet, funk and hip-hop. Ward said the work is rewarding.
“What keeps me motivated and coming back to this kind of work is when the young people keep pulling more from you,” Ward said. “They take it, they synthesize it and they give it back to you with what’s relevant to them.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem last performed in St. Louis more than a decade ago. This weekend’s show will include performances of Robert Garland’s "New Bach," Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the "Front Porch of Heaven (Odes to Love and Loss)" and famed choreographer George Balanchine’s "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux."
Dance Theatre of Harlem
- When: 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, 2014; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014
- Where: Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, 1 University Blvd., St. Louis
- More information