The students streaming into New World School of the Arts on this August morning are not looking back as they hurry toward their future. They pack giggling into elevators in the downtown school’s main building and rush down staircases echoing with singing. They pace outside a theater on the eighth floor, coiffed and tense, waiting to audition for this year’s productions of Shakespeare and Chicago.
One floor down, modern dance teacher Rosalyn Deshauteur, fresh from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, surveys a studio full of black-clad young dancers and declares, “I’m going to push them really hard — they can take it.”
“Look where you’re going!” she calls. “You can jump a little higher! Yes!”
As the sound of teenage voices echoes through the halls of the music building two blocks away, vocal music student Maya Hunter, a 16-year-old high school junior, says New World is where she has always wanted to be. “Exciting things are happening here, real things,” she says. “We’re all very closely connected, and it’s like one big family.”
After 25 years, the New World family has become multi-generational. Maya’s mother, Katie Christie, was among the first high school students when the school opened in 1987, and her father was part of the first college class.
For Christie, then a star-struck musical theater student, and many other kids who crowded a Miami-Dade Community College auditorium on opening day, New World was a dream come true — Miami’s version of New York’s High School of Performing Arts, immortalized in the hit movie Fame. When one of Christie’s friends jumped onstage and began pounding out the movie’s Hot Lunch Jam on piano, the room erupted in dancing and singing.
“There was a really explosive creative energy,” says Christie. “I thought wow, this is going to be an amazing opportunity for me to really learn how to be an artist the way it’s done in New York, the real deal. All of a sudden possibilities seemed more reasonable to me. From that moment on I started to believe I could accomplish things.”
And accomplish they have. In the quarter century since New World was launched from empty storefronts in a mostly desolate downtown Miami, graduates have gone on to Broadway stardom and prestigious dance troupes, to Hollywood movies and top museums. The school has provided a stream of artistic talent that has helped transform Miami’s cultural life, seeding dance companies, theater troupes, experimental art centers and film festivals.
Consultant and lobbyist Seth Gordon was one of a handful of educators and civic leaders who launched New World, selling the idea to the community and the Florida Legislature. The arts conservatory would have a hybrid structure, with the high school under the aegis of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the college under what is now Miami Dade and — penciled in at the last minute by a state senator — Florida International University (later the University of Florida).
“It was incredibly difficult to get people to support it,” Gordon says. “People did not understand no matter how much we explained.” The hit movie with its exuberant street-dancing scene was a selling point — for some. “It was the only art school most people had heard of,” Gordon says. “But we were talking to bankers and it just didn’t resonate — they’d say, ‘Why do we need kids dancing on car roofs?’ ”