Students at Hill Dance Academy Theatre; aspiring professional dancers
It’s a Tuesday night in March, and Zion Jackson, 13, and Bria Goldsmith, 17, have just finished master classes with Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Lindsey Croop and Chyrstyn Fentroy. They’ll admit to a few pre-class jitters, but these two are no strangers to dance. Both are long-time students at Hill Dance Academy Theatre (HDAT), where they dance ballet, jazz, Horton, tap, African, modern and Afro-Caribbean and took tonight’s master classes. Their academy was founded by Ayisha Morgan-Lee, a professional dancer with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Howard University and a Master’s in Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College’s School of Public Policy & Management. The organization’s teaching artists include professional dancers, scholars and alumni, and its philosophy focuses on the dancer’s mind, body and spirit in a well-rounded program that prepares students for careers and life. For Zion and Bria, this philosophy rings true. Dance is central to their lives now, and both intend to build their futures around it. But regardless of what their future careers hold, they know it’s already changed them for life. Here are their stories:
How and when did you get your start in dance? What drew you to it?
Zion: “My first time coming to HDAT, I was 8 and my cousin did it. We used to always put on performances in my living room and show my parents, and they signed me up for dance. I also tried karate, but I was too graceful for it. So I did dance…When I first saw Misty Copeland’s performance on TV, I thought, ‘Hey that looks cool, I want to try that.’ It was very graceful. Of course it looked easy at it first, but it’s not easy (laughs).”
Bria: “I actually started because I came to one of HDAT’s summer intensive performances…my cousin (was performing). I was nine at the time and I didn’t do any outside activities, so my mom was like, ‘Do you want to try it?’ So that’s how I started dancing. I was never really a performer, I was more on the shy side. So I was thinking, maybe it would allow me to open up more and not be so timid and to myself and conservative…Something about dance just kept bringing me back in. I just enjoy it.”
How do you feel when you’re dancing?
Zion: “When I first started dancing I liked to stay to myself, and if I did do stuff, I liked to be in the back. But then as I started dancing I wanted to go to the front. When I dance I feel like I can touch someone in the audience. I feel loved by everybody around me. I feel like you develop a community around yourself. You feel like some people actually want to see you and are paying just to see you, so it’s kind of like a comfort feeling.”
Bria: “When I dance, I just feel a different type of energy coming out of me. Some people that are watching are not fortunate enough to dance for whatever reason, and I just want to make sure that I use this gift to the best of my ability, because everyone does not have the opportunity to dance. When I dance I try to make sure that I’m telling a story and that I’m just not going through the movement, but adding a little personality into it.”
What is your advice for someone who is on the cusp of trying someone new or expressing themselves through something like dance?
Zion: “At first it’s not going to be easy, but don’t give up. Don’t just take a class and be like, ‘OK I like it or I don’t like it.’ Make sure you keep taking classes, because in different classes you learn different things and you develop different feelings about dance. A lot of people say dance is your passion, but as it develops over time you can find that passion in dance.”
Bria: “Dance is very demanding. It takes a lot of work. But if you’re really passionate about it then maybe the work won’t really get to your head, because it’s something that you love. Also you shouldn’t worry about well, ‘She’s more flexible than me or she has better turnout than me’ or whatever it may be. It’s just you getting yourself better each day. I would just say, go for it. It’s a challenge, but if you continue to do it and continue to train, then your results will show.”
As a dancer, what do you take away from your ballet training, specifically, to improve your broader technique?
Zion: “Whether you like ballet or not, it’s the basis of every dance. Everything drives from ballet just like Latin helps every other language form. In Horton, you always have to go navel to spine; even though the arms may be different, your main body frame and structure stays the same. Or in tap, you always have to stay on your toes or on the balls of your feet, so your relevé in ballet helps to make sure your calves are strong enough to do the exercises needed in different dances…Dance requires a lot of discipline, and ballet especially… Like posture in ballet: Some people will ask me, ‘Why are you sitting like that?’ And I didn’t even notice. Or I’ll be sitting and already pointing my feet, and I won’t notice that either. I feel like that influence in ballet, you carry it on through life.”
Bria: “Ballet is the foundation of all genres. Whatever genre you’re taking, ballet is going to show up in some way, shape or form. In ballet, you have to really understand the anatomy of your body. If you’re in any other genre, ballet is just there. That’s why I try each day in ballet to really get that down, so I can take it with me wherever I go.”
What was it like to take class with Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers?
Zion: “At first it was very intimidating. I see (Lindsey Croop) walk in, and I’m like, ‘Wow, she’s really graceful, she looks like she’s a really good dancer.’ And of course she is. I expected her to be really tough and hard on us, but she was very graceful and funny. She would also be really informative and tell us why we’re doing something, and make sure we’re breathing and just make sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to (through) a friendly banter. You can see her personality. And when she danced and showed examples, you could see how her personality would show, which was a good influence on us.”
Bria: “It was kind of scary, because pointe isn’t really my strength at all and it’s just something that I have to continue to work on. But it turns out that she wasn’t as strict as I was expecting. She just really wanted us to know the different placements of our body. She wants to make sure that we’re dancing instead of doing the basics and just going through the movement. It was a nice class. She taught us some of her repertory, and it was really nice.”
Do you have a dancer role model?
Zion: “I think it would be Katherine Dunham or Pearl Primus. We had a choreographer come in and set some choreography on us that was choreographed by Pearl Primus, and I looked up how she used to dance. She was a very powerful woman and she was a very powerful dancer. She started in track…in something almost totally different from dance, so she inspires me.”
Bria: “Ingrid Silva. She is a dancer at Dance Theatre of Harlem. I watched her documentary a few days ago, and it just showed that you can do whatever you want to in life, no matter the obstacle or circumstance. It just really pushes me to make sure that whatever dream I have, I continue to go for that and I succeed no matter how long it will take me.”
What was your biggest takeaway from today’s master class?
Zion: “Our teacher today helped us understand that there are breathing points in ballet, and ballet is basically all breathing in the movement. Not to just do the movement, but to live in the moment. So while you’re living in the moment, you’re telling a story, and when you tell a story you have to breathe. Ballet is living…you have to breathe.”
Bria: “I learned to be more loose instead of being timid. She also taught that while we’re doing a fun and funky dance, make sure that you still continue to do the technique… the ballet foundation. Also I learned, you are your biggest competitor. Even though she didn’t say that bluntly, that’s what I got from it. You can’t compare yourself to whatever someone else has, you just have to fight to make sure that you’re better than what you were yesterday. That’s just the motto that I’m trying to keep with me throughout my dance career and I hope that takes me far.”
What are your plans for the future and for your career?
Zion: “I personally want to dance with Philadanco, because I like their style and how it’s really fast movement. It’s to its full extent. They do Horton, and that’s my favorite style of dance. Horton, Graham, Dunham, I like those types of dance styles, and Philadanco does that and it’s really upbeat. Every piece has a story behind it, and it’s really fast and I like that. And then I want to open my own dance company like Miss Ayisha has.”
Bria: “I’m a rising senior, so in college I do plan on dancing, depending on whether it’s a major or minor. Then, after college, if dance sticks with me throughout the four years, the company I would like to join is Ronald K. Brown Evidence. I just feel like that’s the company that I can relate most to. I think it was two years ago, they came to Pittsburgh and did an open community audition to perform with their dancers and I was picked among three other dancers. Right then and there I knew that I could see myself in that company when I grew up. I’ve seen a lot of companies, so me saying that now…says a lot. Hopefully I keep that mentality throughout my college years.”
What has dance given you that you’ll always carry with you, both within and beyond the dance world?
Zion: “Discipline. In dance there’s a lot of discipline. You have to know when to ask questions, when not to ask questions. Your posture. How to greet and make connections with people. The dance world is so small that you have to make different connections with different people and that will go a long way. In the real world it’s kind of like that…making different connections can get you pretty far in the dance world or not.”
Bria: “You have to network and put yourself out there and not be afraid to connect with other people. You might meet up with them a year later and you might be looking for a job and they might be one of the people who interview you and they might remember you. Not to be afraid to take on any challenge that comes your way and to never throw away an opportunity, because you never know where that could take you.”
Performing. Is that a big part of the equation for you – the ability to share your gift with others?
Zion: “My first time performing with HDAT I was 8 or 9…and even though I was in the back I felt like the spotlight was on me. I liked that feeling of having people watching you and coming just to see you. I like the rush of performing. Even backstage, preparing to perform, you meet so many people and there’s so many memories. Not everything is going to be perfect. Things go fast, and you have to be able to react quickly to those things. I have a lot of memories to take back with me before, during and after the performance.”
Bria: “It just brings you a satisfaction to know that you touched someone out in the audience in some type of way. I feel like dancing is just a way of life. Even if you don’t pursue that for the rest of your years, I feel like there’s always going to be a part of you that will always have a connection to dance. That’s where I am right now. I’m just trying to enjoy my last year here. I’m also in the stage of trying to find myself and trying to see how I’m unique and stand out from the rest.”
Why is it important to take class with and be exposed to people with different professional backgrounds?
Zion: “It keeps letting you get inspired to do different things and it helps you touch on different genres of dance that maybe you weren’t thinking about doing in the future or you haven’t done. I know sometimes in dance it gets really hard and it’s gets hard for you to keep moving on and pushing forward. When you keep having master classes, it inspires you to keep going so you can see the excellence that you can become when you get older.”
Bria: “It’s good to take master classes, because you never want to stay stuck on one style of dance. You want to get all the opportunities that you can to try other things, because you never know, you may like it. Also, taking master classes with different people, you may see them again. They may remember you…You just never know what you can get out of a master class. I just feel like it’s great to take every opportunity that you get.”
Why do you think dance is universal?
Zion: “I think dance is universal because I feel like whatever you do there’s going to be something that you love encrypted into it. Some people use dance as a stress reliever, and some people might use art, like coloring, as a stress reliever, so I feel like we all have different hobbies and different things that we can share with each other. To me, wherever I go, especially in Pittsburgh if you go to one of the cultural events, dancing is always part of the show. Or, you’ll see someone just getting up and dancing to their favorite song, whether it’s nodding their head or actually dancing. So even if you’re not taking classes 24/7, I feel like you still have a part of dance and that rhythm in your body.”
Bria “Dance is just one big community. The dance world is known to be small. Whenever you go out to different functions that revolve around dance, you can meet up with someone that you may have been in a master class with a few months ago…you can just meet people from all over. Also, I just feel that dance is in every type of activity. I know some football players take ballet classes for their muscles…or track…or any other type of sport. I just feel like dance is in everything and there’s no escaping it.”
We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.