When all around there appears to be chaos, a constant of comfort is found in the arts. During the Great Depression President Franklin Roosevelt created the New Deal which “supported the arts in unprecedented ways…Never before or since has our government so extensively sponsored the arts.” When the Great Recession hit, including the financial and subprime mortgage crises between 2007 and 2009, studies showed that movie theatre ticket sales went up. “It’s not rocket science…people want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people,” said Martin Kaplan, then director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society at the University of Southern California. We are, once again, in the midst of a delicate time for our nation wherein many are seeking balance, understanding and, at the core of it all, comfort. What the New Deal and movie theatres provided in their respective times of need, Ballet on Wheels Dance School & Company is now providing for many in our Memphis community.
Chauniece Thompson, founder and executive artistic director of Ballet on Wheels, shares with me that her commitment to dancing, and the arts, began at eight years old. She remembers the many sacrifices her family made, including those of her father who often attended performances following a long day at work. It is this commitment and sacrifice she witnessed that leads her to impress on both her students and their parents that they, too, are a family connected on many levels and that “there is sacrifice involved. There have been struggles; [but] where families see the greatest benefit is that we are so much more than a dance school.” For the first time this year, thanks to what Chauniece says was a “side bar conversation” during a staff meeting, Ballet on Wheels presented a 28-day exhibit coinciding with Black History Month detailing the struggles and sacrifices by African American ballerinas she often references with her own students. Showcased in the William A. Goodwyn Gallery at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, it gave the rest of us a chance to see what the Ballet on Wheels family already knows: what it has taken for dancers of color to get from there to here; what it has taken to get from being denied entry into a dance company as Prima Ballerina Janet Collins initially was (because she would not paint her face white to perform), to becoming the first African American principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history, as Misty Copeland now is.
“They did so we could,” Chauniece reflects and says she asked her students to consider, “how do I make what they did more worthwhile for myself?” It is a question we can all ask ourselves, in fact, because lessons in what the dancers endured in order to overcome obstacles need not be applied solely to the stage of an opera house but also to the grand stage that is life. She says that over the course of the exhibit there were guests who visited numerous times and the impact left on her by their experiences was powerful. “They didn’t just peruse, they stopped to read. [I saw them] reading information boards line by line.” And in reading they would learn, as I did and as her students have, that Janet Collins didn’t give up after that first audition. She would go on to become the first Black artist to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and win the 1951 Donaldson Award for best Broadway dancer. All without painting her face white, as she had originally been asked to do.
Today, through at least eight different community engagement programs, more than fourteen different dance classes, and a scholarship program offering both partial and full scholarships, Ballet on Wheels is building upon the history of innate gifts, sweat, tears, injuries and triumphs set forth by those whose photos and film footage now rest in our Best of the Best dance archives. Today, 35 years after she first learned what it truly meant to be a dancer, Chauniece continues to instill in those around her the examples set by her mother, father and extended family of fellow artists. Through Ballet on Wheels, she and her staff bring comfort to those whose lives are experiencing bouts of chaos; they are the constant for some who are enduring a period of personal or familial instability. When all around there is unsurety, they, and we, know for sure there is beauty found in the arts.